A fantastical past collides with a surprisingly strong relevance to current events in “The Winter’s Tale,” Animal Fire Theatre Co.’s outdoor Shakespeare offering this summer.
The free production, featuring such popular local actors as Scott Douglas and Ryan Holmberg, opens Friday evening at Olympia’s Priest Point Park.
That duality fits with the two sides of the “Tale,” which combines intense psychological drama with pastoral comedy, and betrayal with romance. It’s a play that’s less familiar than many of the bard’s works, even though it contains his most famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
The plot concerns a king, Leontes, who becomes convinced that his wife is having an affair and that the child she is carrying was fathered by another. Dismissing any evidence that contradicts him, the stubborn ruler attempts to punish all involved, even innocent children, and makes a mess of things, though there is — eventually — a happy ending, thanks to strong women.
The play resonates with the news of the day, said Brian Hatcher, the play’s director and a mainstay of the company along with Douglas, his husband.
“It’s a story about a power struggle between women and men,” he told The Olympian. “Throughout the play, the women are the ones who end up pulling everything back together and bringing the world back into humanity, into love and redemption.”
The play’s male characters, even those who try to do the right thing, wind up faltering because they feel they must appease the powerful ruler, he said. “The women are just like, ‘Guys, what are you doing? You’re just being schmucks. Just wake up and see the world that’s around you.’ ”
“It speaks to the recent movement of women reclaiming their power in our society — not allowing themselves to be bullied or victimized any longer,” said Rachel Fitzgerald of Tacoma, who plays Paulina, a principled and courageous noblewoman.
Fitzgerald described her character as the play’s moral compass. “I think about my mother and a number of other women I know who are amazingly strong through life's trials and who have the guts to speak out,” she said. “I hope, were I put in a similar situation, I would stand up for what’s right with the same veracity.”
The production isn’t intended to be about politics, said the actress, who played Beatrice in Animal Fire’s 2017 “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Yet asked to compare Paulina to a contemporary woman, she responded, “She might be the Elizabeth Warren of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ world.”
If the characters seem familiar, she said, it was ever thus. “King Henry VIII may very well have been an inspiration for King Leontes. Jealousy and tyranny are nothing new and would have been as familiar to Shakespeare's audiences as they are to us.”
While the political resonance is real, the play has often been compared to fairy tales.
“There’s a fantastic mythical, mystic texture to it,” Hatcher said. “There’s an undertone of: ‘Are we playing with magic?’ ”
He described the play as timeless — and the costumes and setting will reflect that.
It’s also, in a way, a play without a place — set in the lands of Sicilia, or Sicily, and Bohemia, the modern Czech Republic.
“If we take a look at a map, there’s no waterway between the two lands, and yet Shakespeare writes about traveling by boat and by sea between the two,” the director said. “So even with that, there’s a little bit of a fiction sense to it.”
‘The Winter’s Tale’
Animal Fire Theatre Co. presents its annual free summer Shakespeare play.
When: 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday plus July 20-22 and 27-29 and Aug. 3-5
Where: Priest Point Park, 2600 East Bay Drive NE, Olympia. A map to the show’s location within the park is available at animalfiretheatre.com/where-is-the-show-2.
Tickets: Free, with donations accepted
More information: animalfiretheatre.com