Much like financial mavens watching Wall Street, Shakespeare fans never tire of placing bets on the rise and fall in fortunes of the Bard's 37 plays.
"Hamlet" was the once and future king until "King Lear" scraped its way to the smoldering top of the playwright's tragedies. "Twelfth Night" is generally regarded as Shakespeare's best comedy, but it's performed so often that no one could be faulted for preferring "As You Like It" instead. "Titus Andronicus" has made incredible strides from the bottom of the canon, thanks to a rock band of the same name and the fact that it speaks to our culture saturated with violent imagery.
No shift in relevance is more interesting than that of "The Winter's Tale." The story of Leontes' bizarre fit of rage and jealousy against his wife, Hermione, book-ended by one of the most memorable scenes of redemption in all theater enchants as few other works can.
"The Tempest" will probably always remain Shakespeare's most memorable romance for the way it dissolves the grit of human grudges in grand style, but "The Winter's Tale" impresses us most because it stays true to life's big messes. It's the mirror upon which we see the image of our own grievous errors, and it's the window of grace and magic we desperately hope to escape through.
Javen Tanner, Sting & Honey's artistic director, does triple duty for his company's production of this wonderful work. He plays a more than adequate Leontes even if too genial looking for the partand a hilarious shepherd. Tanner's most remarkable touch, though, is as director.
In the wrong hands, "The Winter's Tale" could easily come off as a clumsy mismatch of one-part "Othello" plus one-part "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with a dash of "King Lear" for tragic flair.
Like any theater professional worthy of the title Tanner holds an MFA from The Old Globe he knows how to polish different sides of the same coin.
Acts 1 through 3, charting Leontes' irrational fit of jealousy against Hermione and their son Mamillius' death, begin in light, descending into the austere chill of suffering. Acts 4 and 5, following Shakespeare's most famous stage direction involving a bear, are suffused with an outdoor ethos, right down to all the rose petals scattered on the stage floor. A looming white tree, present throughout, proves a vital and pivotal set piece that almost makes the end of the play work as the miracle Shakespeare intended.
Almost, if not for scattered touches that mar the production here and there. Reprised between acts is a plaintive line of violin music that grates. As fine a Hermione as Deena Marie Manzanares is, her lines sound more disappointed than despairing of her cruel husband. Perhaps more troublesome, the magic of the play's final scene is broadcast at least twice, when cast members freeze in motion.
The real scene stealer is Roger Dunbar, delivering a spot-on Autolycus so adept at playing the rogue he gets considerable mileage out of even a red pair of underwear. Full of verve and nerve, he's a brilliant foil to the play's sometimes relentless elegaic tone.
Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye wrote that the hard lesson and soft landing of this romance play "symbolized nature's power of renewal; it is the world we want; it is the world we hope our gods would want for us if they were worth worshipping."
Tanner and cast do not draw the straightest line in that mysterious direction, but they take us there all the same. This is a "Winter's Tale" that thaws slowly, but surely, from a weary spirit to the spring of a new soul.
The Sting & Honey Company's production of William Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale"
When • Through Sept. 29; Tuesday-Friday, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Where • Leona Wagner Black Box theater at Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 100 South, Salt Lake City
Bottom line • Sting & Honey hit the solar plexus of Shakespeare's second most famous romance play, even if the tone of this admirable production wavers. Two hours and 40 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission.