William Shakespeare was a writer of infinite range, of course, producing everything from the deeply tragic “Othello” to the playfully whimsical “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
A rare example of a play of his that goes far in one direction, then shifts and ends up in another one, is “The Winter’s Tale,” which is currently being presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (with direction by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte). It is traditionally classified as a comedy, but in this production, which has two acts, you could more correctly call it a comedy with a mini-tragedy as its first act.
In other words, it starts like “Othello,” and ends like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Act One is dominated by the overwhelming and irrational jealousy that Leontes (Jon Barker), King of Sicily, feels when he learns that his wife, Hermione (Erin Partin), is pregnant. He believes, wrongly, that his brother-like friend Polixenes (John Keabler), King of Bohemia, has had an affair with Hermione and is the father. The consequences of his misguided rage are dire.
The second act jumps 16 years into the future, with many of the same characters, but also Hermione and Leontes’ daughter, Perdita (Courtney McGowan) — now grown into young adulthood but unaware of her royal status. She has been raised, in Bohemia, by a shepherd (Ames Adamson) who also doesn’t know who she really is, and she is being courted by Polixenes’ son Florizel (Ryan Woods).
Back in Sicily, Leontes is now older and wiser, but still suffering from wrenching guilt. He and Perdita are eventually reunited, and a magical twist gives “The Winter’s Tale” a happier ending than anyone would have thought possible in the first act.
Deserving special praise among the cast members are Marion Adler as the fiercely righteous noblewoman Paulina — she takes charge of every scene she’s in — and William Sturdivant as the cunning, charming pickpocket Autolycus.
The energetic dancing (overseen by dance consultant Danielle Liccardo) adds a festive note, and scenic designer Brittany Vasta cleverly uses 90,000 feet of tissue paper to fill the stage with fluffy “snow.”
Note: This is the last play of the 2018 STNJ season, and attendees on opening night were informed of the plays in the theater’s 2019 season (without dates). They are: “Ken Ludwig’s The Three Musketeers” (adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas); “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged)” by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor; “The Rainmaker” by N. Richard Nash: “As You Like It” and “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare; and “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens (adapted for the stage by Neil Bartlett).
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison will present “The Winter’s Tale” through Dec. 30. Visit shakespearenj.org.