It’s that time of year: the air starts to nip, leaves begin to wither, and layers pile on. Shakespeare minces no words about the impending season: “For never-resting time leads summer on / To hideous winter and confounds him there… [Sonnet 5]”
But there is a case for winter. There’s cuffing and cocoa, fires and hearty fare, and plenty of darkened hours for engrossing stories. For the first production of its 2023/24 season, Folger Theatre brings us such a yarn, The Winter’s Tale, by the Bard himself. Directed by Tamilla Woodard, the production runs November 4 through December 17 and marks Folger’s return to its newly renovated building.
Often included among Shakespeare’s “problem plays” for its tricky shifts in tone, genre, and gender dynamics, The Winter’s Tale takes place over 16 years. It shows what happens when Leontes, the king of Sicilia, falsely accuses Hermione, his queen, of infidelity. To boot, a rash trial, a lost child, magic, sheep, and Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” The play’s ending is among the most moving but mysterious in Shakespeare.
As the play’s central couple, Hadi Tabbal (TV’s The Brave) plays Leontes, and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy (Broadway’s Slave Play and The Godfather of Harlem on MGM+) plays Hermoine.
The early rehearsals at Folger have been devoted to discovering the story anew. “Something I really enjoy about Shakespeare,” Crowe-Legacy shares, “is how we can reinvent it. In the rehearsal room, I’m making up Hermione’s backstory. We’re weaving stories together with the text as the basis, but the relationships we’re building between characters are specific to us as actors.”
Tabbal, whom DC audiences may remember from Mosaic’s The Vagrant Trilogy in 2018, credits director Tamilla Woodard for “creating an environment that is extremely empathetic, extremely rigorous, and at the same time fun.” Woodard has been encouraging her cast to bring their fullest selves to their roles.
A “geek for language,” Tabbal is also grateful for Folger’s resident dramaturg, Dr. Michele Osherow. “I recently asked a question about the difference between ‘session’ and ‘sessions’ in a speech and received three explanatory emails,” the actor shares with a laugh.
Dr. Osherow has also elucidated the play’s depictions of gender. “More than in any other Shakespeare play, femininity is really prized in this show. We see how the women come and fix everything, usher in a new generation,” Crowe-Legacy recounts.
Both actors note the play’s continued relevancy, as well as the resonances of performing blocks away from the Capitol and Supreme Court buildings, at a theater where Justice Ginsburg had a favorite seat. Folger last produced The Winter’s Tale in 2018, and the play has seen several other recent DMV productions: at Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2013, American Shakespeare Center in 2019, and Christopher Wheeldon’s balletic version, which played the Kennedy Center in 2016.
In her magisterial Shakespeare After All, Marjorie Garber writes, “The resonances of The Winter’s Tale — a very great play — are poetic and mythic, political and ethical….” Garber is the scholar in residence during DC’s Shakespeare Everywhere Festival, a constellation of productions and readings throughout November and December.
“One of my favorite lines is Hermione telling Leontes, ‘if I shall be condemned / Upon surmises, all proofs sleeping else / But what your jealousies awake, I tell you / ’Tis rigor, and not law [Act 3, Scene 2, 118-121],” Crowe-Legacy quotes. “Leontes is making a case based on nothing but his opinion, not facts.”
“We have been talking about justice, and how often the most unjust people talk about justice the most,” Tabbal says. “Has justice, has peace, been achieved by the end? Does Hermione forgive Leontes? Is he forgivable?”
Crowe-Legacy pauses after that last question. “It’s a tragic story of two people who love each other so much, but it all goes very wrong. Leontes has a bad moment, and because he’s a monarch, that’s a dangerous thing. I do think there’s forgiveness, but not renewed love.”
After another pause, she says, “We’re still coming around to that moment in rehearsal. I think there’s space for a lot of possibilities.”
In other words, only time will tell.
The Winter’s Tale plays November 4 through December 17, 2023, at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets (starting at $20) call 202-544-7077 Monday through Friday, 12 pm–5 pm, or go online.
SEE ALSO: Shakespeare Everywhere Festival lineup announced (news story, August 29, 2023)