The Winter’s Tale appears less frequently than many other plays by Shakespeare, but I find it as mesmerizing as anything the Bard ever wrote.
Neither tragedy nor comedy, it blends elements of both genres into a tender, moving, frequently hilarious fable, with feet planted in both corporeal and spiritual realms. Curio Theatre Company’s exquisite production, running through May 18 at their West Philadelphia home base, honors this duality.
Curio leans into the weirdness of the piece, with spellbinding results. Longtime fans of this scrappy troupe won’t be surprised to hear that set-design wizard (and artistic director) Paul Kuhn transforms the performance space inside the Calvary Center for Culture and Community into an Elizabethan arena, complete with a stately wood-paneled thrust stage. This is Sicilia, where King Leontes (played by Kuhn, resident Renaissance man) rules with a troubled psyche, convinced his queen, Hermoine (Corinna Burns), harbors a secret desire for his brother Polixenes (Rich Bradford, whose musical voice ideally suits verse).
This unfounded jealousy sets horrible outcomes in motion, involving banishment, denial, and death. We are in the serious part of the evening, and director Liz Carlson-Guerin conveys the tense, grim mood, aided by evocative lighting (Robin Stamey) and eerie sound design (Daniel Ison). But Shakespeare doesn’t dwell in darkness for long — and neither does the production.
As the action moves from Sicilia to Bohemia, where levity reigns, so, too, does the audience. The small backyard behind the theater has been transformed (by Doug Greene, who also steals scenes left and right as a roving clown) into a pastoral beer garden, an oasis that replicates the bucolic countryside where kings and cowhands comingle.
Here we fall in love with Perdita (luminous Tessa Kuhn), the royal daughter Leontes abandoned, raised as a shepherdess and unaware of her regal parentage. Her love for Prince Florizel (Mark Christie, equally winning), son of Polixenes, sets the satisfying denouement in motion. Spoiler alert: You move back to the main auditorium for the final scene.
Carlson-Guerin’s production makes judicious cuts that streamline the storytelling and keep the audience engaged throughout the intermissionless two-hour running time. I never once missed Autolycus, the cloying pickpocket who tends to pull focus from the burgeoning romance between Perdita and Florizel. Better still, this staging foregrounds two of Shakespeare’s most compelling women, performed here by two of Philadelphia’s most compelling actors.
Burns portrays Hermione as a beacon of righteousness — the certainty of her virtue underscores Leontes’ folly. As Paulina, moral center of the drama and protector of Hermione’s rectitude, Ebony Pullum brims with noble conviction. Her unwavering clarity cuts even the hard-hearted Leontes to the quick: “It is the heretic who makes the fire,” she tells him, “not she who burns in it.”
On opening night, the company announced the launch of CuriosiTix, a program that allows patrons to reserve tickets at no up-front cost and pay according to their means. It is heartening to know this magical production will be accessible to everyone regardless of their wallet.