The Wheel Theatre Company exits with The Winter’s Tale

By Mercedes Hesselroth

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

With the holiday season quickly approaching, so do the stresses that accompany the tricky social etiquette around visiting and hosting loved ones. You might do your best planning and preparation – altering seating arrangements to keep divergent personalities away from each other, creating three different menus to appease everyone’s dietary preferences, diffusing every conversational time bomb – and still not foresee a yuletide crisis. But even if there is drama at your dinner table this year, take comfort in the fact that it certainly can’t be worse than the conflict that befalls the guests and hosts of The Wheel Theatre Company’s The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare.

King Leontes of Sicily (Lee Havlicek) and his heavily pregnant wife Hermione (Elizabeth Ung) have welcomed King Polixenes of Bohemia (Colton Needles) into their home for nine months. Leontes is happy to extend his childhood friend’s stay, until he baselessly concludes Hermione and Polixenes have conspired to steal his crown by producing an heir of their own behind his back. Too deep in his own conviction to realize his accusations of adultery are unfounded, Leontes unsuccessfully plots the murder of his friend and forces Hermione to give birth in prison before subjecting her to a trial.

Needles’ performance as Polixenes stands out for his balance of steadfast rationality and sincere concern in the wake of Leontes’ jealousy. Highlighted in this production is the urgency with which Sicily’s court of advisors must act against a paranoid king’s rages. Yet, even when they present Leontes with his newborn, he still cannot bring himself to admit the child is proof of Hermione’s love.

We live in the era of the double-down. When those in the limelight make a mistake, be they lawmakers, comedians, or CEOs, rather than save face with a genuine apology it has become standard practice to shirk accountability and insist no error was made at all. Therefore, no effort is necessary to correct any harm or become a better person. This is the trouble that overtakes the prideful Leontes, but unlike the disappointing scenarios we see unravel in the public eye, Leontes eventually recognizes the gravity of his missteps and promises to reform, ushering a time jump of sixteen years to the lighter second half of the play.

Director Jack Read wisely lets the small size of the DC Arts Center theater guide a “less is more” approach to the production’s aesthetic. Paper snow and the soft haze of twinkle lights are enough to establish a cozy winter setting. The minimalistic design allows the Bard’s language to shine through, especially in the hands of such a capable ensemble. Since each player pulls at least triple duty to bring both timelines of characters to life, bright layers over loose, gray clothing help to distinguish their various ages and classes (costumes designed by Read, Grace Eda Baker, and Elizabeth Floyd). Of note are Mackenzie Larsen’s seamless shift from five-year-old prince Mamillius to lost princess Perdita and Moira Todd’s cheeky interpretation of the scammer Autolycus, who provides much of the comic relief and musical additions in the show.

The Winter’s Tale will be Wheel Theatre Company’s last local production before they head west to their new home in Nashville. It seems fitting they’ve selected one of Shakespeare’s more reflective works, and one of his final pieces, as their goodbye. Wherever your destination this holiday season, a trip to the DC Arts Center for this twisting tale of forgiveness and new beginnings is worth the visit.

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