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Leontes (Eric Steinberg) is tortured by jealousy in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of 'The Winter's Tale.' Photo by Jenny Graham

'Winter's Tale' spans continents and emotions

To see the new production of “The Winter’s Tale” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is to witness two exotic worlds. There is the gray, austere court of paranoid King Leontes, draped in formality and lashed by cold winds. Then there’s the pastoral, somewhat raggedy land of Bohemia, where spring is in the air and the eternal feminine holds the promise of renewal.

Director Desdemona Chiang treats the drama as two distinct plays juxtaposed into one extended narrative. Chiang, who is based in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, returned to OSF for a third season to guest-direct the new version of Shakespeare’s late romance that opened Saturday night in the OSF’s outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

Chiang has imagined Shakespeare through an Asian lens, placing Leontes’ Sicily in Han Dynasty China where we spend the play’s tragic first half. Across the Pacific, Gold Rush-era California stands in for Bohemia, where we enjoy familiar elements of comedy after the intermission.

It’s a study in opposites. Leontes, Queen Hermione and the ladies and gentlemen of the court are draped in Helen Q. Huang’s formal robes in the season’s apparent hot new color: gray. They move somberly around a spare stage scenic designer Richard Hay has branded with a stark image of a bonsai-like tree.

In Bohemia/California, in contrast, music is in the air, and the raggedy denizens of a rough-and-tumble land wear the cowboy boots (even though many of them are shepherds) and gaily colored flowers and ribbons and feathers and whatnots of guitar-toting cowboy/hippie/rustics.

It is the unjust raging of King Leontes (Eric Steinberg) against his queen that incites the string of events that will span two worlds, unfold over 16 years and seemingly cost the king everything. Wrongly suspecting the loyal Hermione (Amy Kim Waschke) of being pregnant with the child of his visiting boyhood pal Polixenes (James Ryen), the King of Bohemia, the suddenly mad Leontes plots to kill Polixenes, and he has Hermione imprisoned and the baby exposed to die.

Leontes is a portrait of rage beyond all reason as he arcs quickly from suspicion to paranoia to injustice to tyranny. He’s like Othello but worse in that he doesn’t even have an Iago. It’s all coming from a patriarchal fear of female sexuality and the need to control women and ensure his dynasty.

Things are more fun in Bohemia, despite the local bears’ habit of dining on unlucky visitors. Here Leontes and Hermione’s banished daughter, Perdita (a radiant Cindy Im), unbeknownst to the king, has grown into a young woman. Saved as a babe by Old Shepherd (Jonathan Haugen), she’s now courted by Florizel (Moses Villarama), Polixenes’ son and heir, prompting the king to get in touch with his inner Leontes and threaten his son with death.

Chiang, true to her Shakespearean first name, is firmly in control of her material. East and West are irony-free zones as what began as a grim fairy tale turns into pastoral comedy. It’s a low-tech production sans trendy bells and whistles, driven by strong performances from the actors.

Waschke is quietly dignified as Hermione, in contrast to the activist Paulina, played with verve by Miriam A. Laube. Jonathan Haugen proves once again there’s no such thing as a small part as wise, compassionate Old Shepherd, Perdita’s savior who holds the key jubilee in Act 4.

Stephen Michael Spencer’s Autolycus is a charming, guitar-strumming thief we can’t help but cheer. Less bawdy than Mercurio, less sordid than Thersites, he resembles them in taking over his scenes. He is an Everyman rogue and scoundrel whose sins pale compared with the damage done by Leontes.

The Jacobeans loved spectacle and mystery, and Shakespeare dished it up in the famous last scene in which the play’s tragedy is reversed. Audiences tend to struggle with it (this reviewer included). Is it a bit of Ovidian magic in which Shakespeare channels Pygmalion? Or has Hermione been alive and aging in hiding from Leontes and acquiring new wrinkles all these years?

Whatever your answer, it’s as if Shakespeare, having peered into nihilism in his earlier tragedies, felt the need for hope. Chiang and company play it straight, a fairy tale ending to a long, strange trip to redemption.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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