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Cedar City • "The Winter's Tale," which just opened at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in a luminous and emotionally satisfying production, is one of Shakespeare's final plays and a compendium of much of the work that came before.
If the play ended halfway through, it would be a tragedy: Leontes' irrational jealousy and the tyranny it generates bring about the death and destruction of everything he holds dear. However, audiences seeing only its second act would describe it as a pastoral comedy, similar in many ways to "As You Like It," with shepherds, young lovers and a rather perverse clown.
What's unique about the play is that Shakespeare goes beyond the tragedy to discover renewal, rebirth, forgiveness and redemption. What makes this production work so beautifully is that director Laura Gordon finds ways to integrate seemingly contradictory elements birth and death, winter and spring, love and loss, revenge and reconciliation into a transcendent whole that emerges as more than the sum of its parts.
Here's one example: In the final scene, Gordon moves the characters through a series of stage pictures that reaffirm and clarify all the relationships in the play: husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and son, two best friends and the woman who both divided and now unites them. It's a graceful moment in both senses of that word.
Gordon's vision is supported by actors who fully understand their characters and how to reveal their humanity. Brian Vaughn establishes Leontes as a suspicious and volatile autocrat early enough to make the abrupt changes in this problematic character understandable, if not always likable (obsessed men who victimize their wives are a theme in this fall's productions). As his wronged wife, Melinda Pfundstein's Hermione is the definitive mother, soft and compassionate, yet courageous in the conviction of her innocence. Costume designer Rachel Laritz has given her flowing dresses of white and lavender that set her apart like a Greek goddess.
As Leontes' friend and suspected rival, Polixenes, Ben Livingston wears his emotions on his sleeve as he reacts to the changes in the friend and son he thought he knew. Jeanne Paulsen's Paulina and Todd Denning's Camillo are sensible and steadfast as the unwavering counselors who would keep their wavering monarchs on the right path.
As the wily pickpocket Autolycus and the bumbling, good-natured shepherd who is often his target, David Ivers and Quinn Mattfeld provide welcome comic relief. Peter Silbert is philosophical and practical as the old shepherd who rescues and raises the abandoned Perdita. And Ian Durant and Jennifer Whipple are sweet and lively as young lovers Florizel and Perdita, although Whipple's inexperience with Shakespearean language shows in her early scenes.
The flexible, glass-paneled screens of Jo Winiarski's set capture the cold austerity of the court and shift easily to the trees and awakening life of the forest under Donna Ruzika's equally responsive lighting. Laritz's costumes transition smoothly from formal black and white to subtler shades of brown, beige and gray. Barry Funderburg's music and Stephanie Ivers' dances are charming.
As its title suggests, "The Winter's Tale" is a story that owes more to metaphor than fact. This production creates a magical world approached best not with the head, but with the heart.
'The Winter's Tale'
R This life-affirming production transports its audience through pain and trials to new appreciation and understanding.
When • Reviewed Sept. 28; in rotating repertory with "Dial M for Murder" and "Noises Off" Tuesdays through Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., through Oct. 21
Where • Randall Theatre, 300 W. Center St., Cedar City
Tickets • $26-$62 (discounts for groups, students, and seniors) at 800-PLAYTIX or http://www.bard.org.
Running time • Three hours (including an intermission)