A 'Tale' of two halves

Michael Thomas Holmes as Autolycus.

Michael Thomas Holmes as Autolycus.

There's no doubt about it, The Winter's Tale is one oddball play. Shakespeare veers wildly between a pair of situations: a tense tragedy set in the court of Sicilia, and a warmer pastoral comedy amid the rustic fields of Bohemia. Sixteen years separate the two halves. There's a famous bear. Oh, and a statue of a king's dead wife comes to life at the end of the play.

No wonder The Winter's Tale ends up on the "problem play" list.

[jump] The costuming--from classy to, um, unique--helps to set apart both worlds, though the script does that all on its own. In the first half in Sicilia, the king suspects that his good wife is having an affair with the king of Bohemia. His suspicions turn to a jealous rage, where Leontes threatens his Bohemian counterpart, imprisons his wife and orders the death of his newborn daughter. By the end of this segment, his life lies in tatters--his friends gone, his daughter abandoned in Bohemia, his agent eaten by the play's famous bear, and his wife dead.

For the Guthrie Theater's latest production, director Jonathan Munby (along with scenic designer Alexander Dodge and especially costume designer Linda Cho) goes, to use a somewhat dated reference, "all in." The two lands are far flung in look and nature as their respective story lines. In Sicilia, it's all stark black and white, while the cast is dressed like a Mad Men audition. Sixteen years later in Bohemia, we've moved into the mid-1970s in rural Minnesota, full of flat accents and bell-bottom jeans.

It's an effective choice. It never detracts too much from the story, even when in the second-half clown Autolycus shows up at a party pushed on a shopping cart strumming an electric guitar (again, it doesn't detract too much). And how often do you get to see an actor of Raye Birk's quality sporting a green crushed velvet suit?

The second half sends us 16 years forward where the daughter, raised by simple shepherds, has grown up and is in love with the Florizel, the son of the King of Bohemia. There's a lighter tone throughout, even when the king discovers the affair and threatens death and banishment to all involved. It never feels as real as the first part or the finale where all of the plot threads finally come together for the play's ultimate miracle.

At times it seems like Shakespeare is deliberately toying with our expectations--the climatic reunion of fathers and children is played completely off stage--but common themes of the corrosive power of jealousy and love triumphing over all are present. The actors, especially Michael Hayden as Leontes, present this well, helping to unify the various parts of the story.

In the end, you just have to deal with the troubles of The Winter's Tale and take the pleasures that are provided. The Guthrie has a top-notch cast, a striking design and a piece that moves fairly well, even at three hours in length. And the bear is pretty cool too.

The Winter's Tale runs through March 27.