The most famous line from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” is a simple stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” The line is memorable because of Shakespeare’s inscrutable tone, which many interpret as a playful approach to a character’s grisly demise.
Like that famous line, the “The Winter’s Tale” is a head-scratching blend of tragedy, comedy and romance. The play takes audiences on a strange journey, but in the capable hands of the NOLA Project, it’s well worth the trip.
“The Winter’s Tale,” playing at the New Orleans Museum of Art through Dec. 20, is presented in three parts, takes place in two countries, and spans 16 years.
In part one, NOLA Project ensemble members Sean Glazebrook and Kristin Witterschein command the stage as Leontes and Hermione, the king and queen of Sicilia. Glazebrook deftly navigates the king’s descent into madness, as he questions the fidelity of his pregnant wife. Witterschein, who previously played Viola in the NOLA Project’s production of “Twelfth Night” and Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” once again proves her leading lady status as the innocent and unrepentant queen.
The lengthy first part of “The Winter’s Tale” has more than a passing resemblance to “Othello,” another Shakespeare tragedy driven by jealousy, but Part 2 abruptly shifts to boisterous comedy.
When the lights come up on Bohemia, 16 years have passed, and Leontes’ childhood friend Polixenes is preparing for his son’s wedding. In contrast to the stark, agonizing drama of part one, the wedding party in part two is an unbridled spectacle of modern-day beer drinking, breakdancing and cross-dressing.
As Polixenes, Graham Burk gets to loosen up and have some fun, but it’s Michael Krikorian who threatens to steal the show as the karaoke-singing rapscallion Autolycus. The only drawback of the colorful party atmosphere is that the bride and groom, played by Julia DeLois and Khiry Armstead, get upstaged at times by the craziness that surrounds them.
The extreme shift in styles is a risky move by director A.J. Allegra. Some audience members might prefer the traditional presentation of Part 1, while others might prefer the unconventional staging of Part 2, but both parts are well done, and the competing aesthetics fit the mixed-up nature of the story.
In part three, worlds collide when the wedding party travels back to Sicilia to visit King Leontes. The production regains a bit of its gravitas without completely dispensing of the silliness of Part 2, though some magic is lost by an unnecessary intermission between Parts 2 and 3.
A strong supporting cast keeps the show grounded, particularly Greg Baber as Camillo, one of the few characters to move between both worlds. James Bartelle, last seen on stage as the talking sheep in NOLA Project’s “Marie Antoinette,” plays two wildly different characters (including the victim of the aforementioned bear) and nails them both. Monica Harris also stands out as Paulina, the voice of reason in the court of Leontes.
The sparse set design by Leah Farrelly is subtle but effective.
The cast has a lot of room to move around NOMA’s Great Hall, though with chairs lined up on three sides of the staging area, audiences occasionally end up watching the back of an actor’s head during some of the play’s impassioned exchanges.
“The Winter’s Tale” is NOLA Project’s third Shakespeare production in the Great Hall, and another great example of the company’s versatility in adapting the Bard’s best works.
The show continues through Dec. 20.