He's just one in a long line of Will Shakespeare's Grumpy Old Men, but King Leontes of The Winter's Tale might make Lear himself feel a bit faint. In the grip of sudden, mind-melting jealousy, this formerly genial monarch sets about destroying his wife, children and the royal succession; tries to have his best friend poisoned and his baby daughter burned; and sends trusted courtiers off to face death by shipwreck and wild beast. (Yes, this is the play with the timelessly quirky stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear.")
And then, just as abruptly, the king comes to his senses, recognizes the hell he has created, and is oh-so-terribly sorry for it all. It's enough to make an actor go for a drink.
In other words, give the Stolen Shakespeare Guild credit for a gutsy artistic choice: Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale is a hard play to bring off. But if the Guild's current production, playing at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center's Sanders Theatre, isn't quite up to all of Shakespeare's tricks, there are some fine performances here, and the company as a whole does a good job of making Shakespeare's language reach across to an audience that's probably not quite as familiar with this story as, say, Hamlet. And, of course, they're lucky enough to be playing through to one of Shakespeare's happiest of happy endings.
Like Cymbeline and The Tempest, The Winter's Tale belongs to the late plays that Shakespeare's fellow playwright Ben Jonson mocked as "tales, tempests and such like drolleries." It was, writes Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, as if Shakespeare "had started to write children's books" full of magic and apparitions, wicked stepmothers and raging fathers, children lost in the woods and found after many adventures. Yet these plays, like fairy tales, are anything but fluff. They are about families, marriages and friendships. Look how unthinkably cruel we can be to the people we love, Shakespeare seems to say. How do we find ways to survive it, to forgive, to heal?
At midpoint through The Winter's Tale we are in the darkness and despair of King Leontes' (Allen Walker) madness, with death all around: queen gone, son gone, daughter lost. Then, in a literal and emotional change of scenery, Shakespeare transports us to a sunnier land, the kingdom of Leontes' boyhood friend King Polixenes (Kirk Corley). There, a shepherd's son called Clown (Zane Allen Whitney Jr.) witnesses the violent death of the lord Antigonus (Bryan Douglas), who is carrying the baby princess away to exile. The Old Shepherd himself (Delmar H. Dolbier) rescues the baby. "Thou meetest with things dying, I with things new-born," cackles the old man to his son.
Home they go with the child, and 16 years pass. Perdita (Libby Hawkins Roming) grows into "the prettiest low-born lass that ever ran on the greensward." She has, of course, met a charming prince, Florizel (Nathan Dibben), who loves her (and he is, of course, Polixenes' son). There are shepherds and shepherdesses, dancing and celebration. But this pleasant land is an interlude, not the end of the story. To complete the healing journey, Shakespeare must get these people back to square one, to the dark palace where Leontes is doing a lifetime of penance for his sins under the sharp tongue of his lamented queen's best friend Paulina (Cynthia Matthews). And as the complications grow, we are left to wonder: Can this broken family, after all, be saved?
Corley as King Polixenes is touching in the early moments of the play that chronicle his lifelong friendship with Leontes. "We were as twinned lambs that frisk i' th' sun," he tells the queen. As Leontes, Walker faces the challenge of portraying a man falling markedly deeper into delusion and madness with each passing moment, yet attempting for a time to present a royal face to the world. "Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays…" he says to his young son, and we feel the chill behind these bland words. Walker is most effective in his repentance, and in the healing and happy final scenes of the play.
Much is made of some juicy supporting roles: Matthews is memorable as Paulina, the queen's outspoken defender. As Leontes rages that his faithful wife is a "bed-swerver," a "hobby horse," a "pond fished" by another man, Paulina calls him a mad tyrant. "I'll have thee burnt," blusters Leontes. "I care not," she spits back. Eric Dobbins is a hoot as the roguish con artist and pickpocket Autolycus. He has a deft, commedia-style physicality, especially in a scene shared with Whitney that leaves the gullible Clown stripped down to his vintage undies.
Jason Morgan, who co-directs with wife Lauren (they are the Guild's founders), is quietly effective as the troubled courtier Camillo, whose conscience won't allow him to carry out the king's mad commands. As the sad queen Hermione, Jessica Dahl-Colaw pulls a little bit more from a role that often can seem too patient and passive; her queen is loving, but admirably forceful in defending her cause. And young love is charmingly played by Roming as the lost Perdita and Dibben as the determined Florizel.
It's always intriguing to wonder why one of Shakespeare's less-frequently produced works might come into fashion: Shakespeare Dallas, Austin Shakespeare and Texas Shakespeare Festival are all mounting their own productions of The Winter's Tale this year, and Circle Theatre's 2013 season includes a new play with a familiar title: Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Enough, perhaps, to say that in this year or any other, it's good to see a story that ends with the broken made whole, the dead arisen and the world—at least within the "Globe" of Shakespearean theater—healed.