A triumphant return to the Folger

A triumphant return to the Folger
The birthday of young prince Mamillius, played by St. Stephens & St. Agnes third grader Clarence Payne, is celebrated during the Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ (Photo/ Folger Theatre )

By Denise Dunbar | ddunbar@alextimes.com

 It was a joyful homecoming at the Folger Theatre Saturday night as the historic venue held a grand reopening, complete with an after-play party for audience and cast alike, following a three-and-a-half year major renovation project at the Folger Shakespeare Library. 

While it was wonderful to enjoy the intimate, Elizabethan Folger Theatre again after so long an absence for a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” the unveiling of some of the Library’s new spaces captured the evening’s spotlight. 

Prior patrons of the Folger will recall entering the building on the second floor, where the cramped lobby hosted the will-call window to the left. The renovation has moved the main entryway downstairs, enabling guests to walk through a lovely exterior plaza and garden area leading to the new entrance. 

Visitors step into a spacious 12,000 foot lobby with will-call and two large, multi-stall, gender-neutral restroom facilities. There’s an elevator and a new stairwell, which boasts a continuous wooden handrail from top to bottom – something the old facility lacked. 

Renovations to the Library portion of the facility are not yet complete, but glimpses of the Great Hall, in which food was served in just the eastern portion Saturday night, promise a lovely makeover. 

According to the Folger’s website, the Great Hall is being repurposed from hosting exhibitions to a meeting and gathering space. Other rooms in the library are being remodeled in the way of the best historic museums, making the space more interactive and thus accessible to a wider swath of visitors. 

The renovations are being financed by “The Wonder of Will” campaign, which has raised more than $50 million to date. 

While some people in attendance commented on the stark contrast between the sleek, modern Adams Plaza downstairs and the dark wood and antiquated feel of the Folger Theatre and Great Hall, I found the juxtaposition appealing. Museums have to remain relevant and welcoming while preserving what came before, and this project has accomplished just that. 

The only change to the Folger Theatre itself is a revamped HVAC system. Anyone who has previously watched a fantastic performance while shivering inside their winter jacket will appreciate the upgrade. 

Unfortunately, the play itself was the least impressive facet of this triumphant evening, as I found the choice of “The Winter’s Tale” an odd one for the grand reopening. 

This play was performed at the Folger Theatre less than two years prior to the planned March 1, 2020, shutdown for the renovation. Given that theaters only do a handful of productions per year, this is an extremely short time lapse from one performance of “The Winter’s Tale” to the next when many other options were available. 

“The Winter’s Tale” certainly has its advocates, but I find the first half exceedingly morose and the second excessively silly. A spirited rendition of one of The Bard’s beloved comedies would have been a better choice. 

There were nonetheless numerous notable performances Saturday night, including Hadi Tabbal, who nailed the descent of Leontes into jealousy-fueled madness in the play’s first half. These scenes were aided by eerie but effective sound effects that helped accentuate the “inside his own head” aspect of Leontes’ subsequent misguided actions. 

Antoinette Crow-Legacy was radiant as Hermione, Leontes’ faithful wife who is wrongly accused. Reza Salazar engaged the audience with his energetic portrayal of the con artist Autolycus. 

And young Clarence Payne, a third-grader at Alexandria’s St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School, was remarkable as the tragic young prince Mamillius. 

In the play’s first half, actors were clad in costumes from the 1940s, including Folger stalwart Kate Eastwood Norris, who by my count is performing in her 20th production at the Theatre. Norris was exceptional as Hermoine’s loyal defender, Paulina. 

Placing Shakespeare’s characters and words in a modern timeframe always causes the theater-goer to experience the play in a different way, and it was effective here. The frivolity of the second act was accentuated by the faux western garb worn by most of the characters, and by the neo-drag-show attire of Autolycus. 

Artistic Director Karen Ann Daniels set the tone for the happiness of the evening while welcoming the audience. 

“This is a night of celebrating and of joy,” Daniels said. 

Directed by Tamilla Woodard, with scenic design by Raul Abrego, Jr.; costume design by Sarah Cubbage; sound design and composition by Matthew Nielson; lighting design by Max Doolittle, and choreography by Joya Powell. 

Also starring Drew Kopas as Polixenes, Cody Nickell as Camillo, Kayleandra White as Perdita, Jonathan Del Palmer as Forizell, Stephen Patrick Martin as Antigonus/shepherd and Nicholas Gerwitz as the shepherd’s son. 

The writer is publisher and executive editor of the Alexandria Times.