With their characteristically minimal stage design and exquisite acting, Ten Thousand Things’ production of one of the bard’s less favored plays is a romp full of jealously, love, and the power of time. In their classical peripatetic style, The Winter’s Tale will be performed all around Minnesota. I was fortunate to see it at Open Book, where the actors performed in the round, and the low ceilings lovingly magnified the lovely music performed by Peter Vitale and the cast.

The Winter’s Tale is often categorized as a Romance (as opposed to straight Tragedy or Comedy) but this descriptor doesn’t do justice to the sharp tonal shifts throughout.  Sicilian King Leontes (Steven Epp) and his very pregnant queen Hermonie (Shá Cage) entertain Bohemian King Polixenes (James Craven) at their court. While the three seem to be excellent friends, after a night of revelry Leontes suspects a long-standing affair between Hermonie and Polixenes and convinces himself that the child she carries is not his. This first section is key as it provides emotional investment in the rest of the (increasingly) odd story; happily, this section is played to perfection – the friendly affection between Cage and Craven is spot on and so too is Epp’s unnerving rage during Leontes’ increasingly unhinged ravings. The chemistry between the three is electric, with Hermonie’s love of Leontes and her coquettish-nicety towards Polixenes still very relevant to our contemporary debates over women’s sexuality. Watching this show, it’s hard not to think our current culture as we are still so mired in accusations of “she had it coming.” Bravo to director Marcela Lorca and Cage for so expertly highlighting the no-win situation Hermonie must endure the whole play. As Alcott perfectly summarized: “Nothing provokes speculation more than the sight of a woman enjoying herself."

After a particularly memorable rant, Leontes believes he has convinced Camillo (William Sturdivant) to murder Polixenes. Instead, both flee to Bohemia. After Hermonie has her child, a little girl, she dies during her adultery trial. Instead of killing Hermonie’s child, Leontes, moved by the words of Hermonie’s long-standing friend Paulina (Mo Perry), allows the child to be taken by Paulina’s husband Autolycus (Karen Wiese-Thompson) away and abandoned in a far-flung place. He thus bestows on her a small chance for survival, and sets up the second half of the play where a lovely and kind “shepherd girl” Perdita (Stephanie Bertumen) falls in love with Polixenes’ son, Florizel (Christopher Jenkins) and together they reunite the kingdoms.

Team, if I am honest, this is not one of Shakespeare’s best plays. The picturesque setting and buffoonery of the second half feel out of sorts with the deep drama presented in the first. Handling the tonal shift requires grace and a good humor, and I am pleased to report this cast has both in spades. While the main characters played by Epp, Cage, and Craven provide excellent depth to the first half, it is the ensemble work of the second that keeps the story moving. In particular, Mo Perry as both the erudite Paulina and Perdita’s adopted shepherd father, is captivating and completely different in each role. Her Paulina is strong and courageous, able to speak to the irate King forcefully and persuasively. Her shepherd is silly and sweet, full of good cheer and charmingly rough. Likewise Karen Wiese-Thompson, first as the sycophantic Autolycus and then the smooth-talking, rogue-with-a-heart-of-someone-else’s-gold Antigonus provides depth and clarity to the seemingly random end of the play.

There are still several chances to see this staging at Open Book (October 24-27) before the production moves to North Garden Theater (October 31-November 3, 7-10) and then to the Sheldon Theater in Red Wing (November 15-17). I can’t imagine there will be a better staging for a long time!