Winter of our discontent 

Shakespeare Fest's The Winter's Tale gives two plays in one

With The Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare delivers two plays for the price of one. At the half-way mark, the story not only leaps forward 16 years but moves from one genre to another. The first half approximates Greek tragedy, with stark, chilling events played out in fiery rhetoric, while the second half gives way to pastoral comedy with music, jokes and a perplexing magical resolution.

The Winter's Tale has a very modern quality, like watching back-to-back one-acts, but it isn't produced as often as Shakespeare's better-known works. Its language is as beautiful as any of his plays, but its strangeness is hard to handle, featuring as it does oracles, resurrections, convenient shipwrecks and bear attacks. Approaching a problematic work, the Georgia Shakespeare Festival makes some problematic choices, albeit in the service of a frequently powerful and memorable production.

It begins with Leontes (Allen O'Reilly), king of Sicilia, trying to persuade his long-time friend Polixenes (Rob Cleveland), king of Bohemia, to extend a royal visit. Leontes can't convince him to stay, but Sicilian queen Hermione (Carolyn Cook) does -- and with no other evidence than that, Leontes is convinced his wife and friend are cuckolding him. Formerly a loving husband and father, Leontes is seized with a furious jealousy to rival Othello's.

Calling his wife a "bedswerver" and a "hobby horse," Leontes embodies the kind of perfect paranoia that interprets any contradiction as evidence of complicity. Soon he condemns a loyal adviser (Tim McDonough) and throws his pregnant wife in prison, where she gives birth to their second child. He faces his most forcefully eloquent opposition from Lady Paulina (Janice Akers), the play's voice of righteousness and one of Shakespeare's strongest female characters.

The first half of The Winter's Tale takes place several days, but the action, particularly under the direction of Richard Garner, moves with the urgency of real-time events. Leontes puts his wife on trial, orders his newborn infant exposed to the wilderness and comes to his senses only after a series of tragic events.

Akers also plays the embodiment of Time as she explains the 16-year leap and, in this production, occasionally observes or intrudes on the action. Mostly this device seems like a rationale to have someone say aloud the play's famous stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear." In the second act, Polixenes' son Florizel (Anthony Irons) has fallen in love with Leontes' daughter Perdita (Jessie Andary), who has been raised by a Bohemian shepherd, unaware of her true identity.

The pivotal character in the play's last half is Autolycus, a con-man and troubadour whom Chris Kayser portrays with ingratiating gusto, picking pockets, imitating nobility and singing songs pleasantly arranged like rollicking hippie music. An inadvertent ally of the star-crossed lovers, he's shocked to discover that he might actually do some good.

The Georgia Shakespeare Festival's production sets up effective contrasts between Sicilia and Bohemia, staging dance scenes in each act. Snow falls during a grim moment in Sicilia, while rose petals tumble from above during a rustic Bohemian festival. The production's primary stage is a tilting, disc-shaped platform that evokes the face of a timepiece. But projected photographs seem almost like vacation slides, and Leontes' emotional shifts are accompanied by musical "stings" worthy of silent film.

O'Reilly plays Leontes with plenty of heat and vocal force, but he tends toward bombast. Next to the work of Akers or Cook, he's a musician playing John Philip Sousa while they're doing Beethoven. At anguished moments, an ill-advised bit of blocking puts him in a sort of ostrich position that unfortunately borders on the comic.

Nevertheless, O'Reilly has some touching moments opposite Leontes' heir Mamillus, who's played by the actor's own 7-year-old son, Evan. That piece of casting helps emphasize The Winter's Tale's themes of loss and reconciliation, even as some of the production's other creative decisions don't quite catch fire. The Winter's Tale poses a challenge not easily met, but it's still thrilling watching the Georgia Shakespeare Festival take it on.

The Georgia Shakespeare Festival presents The Winter's Tale in repertory through Aug. 10 at the Conant Performing Arts Center at Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road, at 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 2 and 8 p.m. Sun. $20-26.50. 404-264-0020.

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