The Winter’s Tale is famously split in personality – the new production from Actors’ Shakespeare Project, however, is also split in terms of quality. In fact, the opening acts of this brilliant hybrid of tragedy and comedy – in which a monarch destroys both his wife and family in a delusional fit of jealousy – are so miscast and ineptly interpreted that you may feel director Curt Tofteland, the star of Shakespeare Behind Bars, should be incarcerated, too.
Luckily, the tide turns for the production just as it does for the characters, when Shakespeare shifts from winter solstice to vernal equinox, and from destruction to redemption. The second half of The Winter’s Tale, a rough-and-tumble pastorale of sheep-shearings and tossed garlands, plays to this company’s strong suit: broad, clever comedy, led by the troupe’s chief zany, the exuberant, endlessly resourceful John Kuntz (at left, cooking in foil).
Alas, that doesn’t mean the first act can be redeemed; when Shakespeare returns to the scene of his tragic hero’s crimes, its uses seem just as stale and unprofitable as they did the first time around - and the miracles of restitution (and resurrection) the Bard has up his sleeve somehow fail to enchant. (This is all the more surprising given that in the last, mystical act ASP stalwart Bobbie Steinbach is in charge, rather than bluff newcomer Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.)
Still, the intervening rural scenes are often gems of comic invention, although they lack interpretive depth. Kuntz’s Autolytcus, for instance, is here largely a vehicle for this actor's signature channeling of multiple personalities; he should instead be more clearly tied to spring’s awakening (he’s Flora’s earthier – or rather dirtier - cousin); still, Kuntz is so ceaselessly ingenious and energetic you don’t really care if a few themes get trampled beneath his banana peels (after all, said themes were never set up in Act I, anyway). And he’s more than ably assisted by fellow comedians Doug Lockwood (the funniest Clown of any production I’ve seen), Richard Snee, Joel Colodner (an especially welcome new arrival), Christine Hamel, and Mara Sidmore; meanwhile James Ryen and Cristi Miles (above) do conventional, but credible, work in the young-lover department.
So, is this particular Shakespearean glass half-empty or half-full? Audiences often are struck by the strange tonal shifts of what may be the Bard's most original play; at least this version dodges that problem. But productions tend to be palimpsests, and ASP should, I think, look carefully at this one, because its contrasts reflect the company’s capabilities all too closely. In a nutshell, the ASP swaggers with comedy, but staggers at tragedy (in the current ensemble, only Richard Snee and Joel Colodner seem equally adept at both). But if the Actors' Shakespeare Project genuinely hopes to encompass the canon, it's going to have to come to terms with all of Shakespeare's seasons.