The Harry Potter nod is a more contemporary literary reference than one may typically associate with the Folger Theatre, which last week welcomed back audiences for the first time since early 2020, even as construction continues across the building. But it’s an apt allusion for a leader with a modern vision for how the 91-year-old institution can engage audiences as it prepares to fully reopen next year with an emphasis on making William Shakespeare’s works accessible to all.
“We’re coming back into it, I think, with a different energy and a different perspective on what theater could be for all kinds of people and not just traditional audiences,” Daniels says. “We’re really thinking forward about who are the kinds of artists, the variety of artists that could potentially be on this stage and representing these stories and interpreting these stories in ways that maybe the Folger hasn’t done before.”
That mind-set steered Daniels — appointed in 2021 to replace retiring artistic director Janet Griffin — toward “The Winter’s Tale” as both the first play back in the Folger’s Elizabethan Theatre and the first production of her inaugural season at the helm. Although “The Winter’s Tale” is not among Shakespeare’s most frequently produced plays, Daniels says its focus on reinvention and new beginnings felt so appropriate that she never considered any other play for the occasion.
“For me,” Daniels says, “it’s so important that ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is really the beacon for where we’re headed.”
One of Shakespeare’s final plays, “The Winter’s Tale” tracks the consequences of the Sicilian king Leontes’s sudden suspicion that his best friend, the Bohemian ruler Polixenes, is sleeping with his wife. Although the first three acts unfold as a prototypical Shakespearean tragedy, a 16-year time jump ushers in a story of song and dance and comic shenanigans — turning the play into a sprawling cross-section of the Bard’s oeuvre.
“This is an artist who is at the point where he’s not proving himself,” says director Tamilla Woodard, the acting program chair at Yale’s David Geffen School of Drama. “It’s like he’s breaking all the rules he’s set up. We’ve got a tragedy that completes in three acts, and a comedy that completes in essentially one act, and then a whole nother kind of romance. He’s doing all three kinds of plays that he writes in one play.”
To Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, the actress who portrays the tragic queen Hermione, the play’s passage of time also comes with poetic parallels. Just as the characters of “The Winter’s Tale” reckon with the grief, longing and regret that festered during the time jump, the Folger’s artists and audiences carry their own experiences and emotions from the past several years into the Elizabethan Theatre.
“There’s a lot of talk about time and patience and how things move along,” says Crowe-Legacy, formerly of Broadway’s “Slave Play.” “That’s what we’re seeing here in this building. It was a hard time. There was a lot going on in the world, between the pandemic and social justice and all of the things — and that’s still happening. But to be able to come back to this space and be able to tell a story is really a privilege, and it’s a really beautiful beginning.”
Woodard acknowledges the current moment with a modernist staging, complete with contemporary costumes — think bespoke suits, Mexican ponchos and plenty of fringe — as well as anachronistic musical interludes. There’s also an emphasis on celebration in the production, which begins with a birthday party and asks the audience to sing along with the mischievous peddler Autolycus. And the cast features a diverse gathering of Folger newcomers — including Hadi Tabbal as Leontes, Reza Salazar as Autolycus and Crowe-Legacy — alongside the likes of Cody Nickell and Kate Eastwood Norris, a husband-and-wife pair with myriad Folger credits to their names.
“It’s a vision of now,” says Nickell, who plays the royal confidant Camillo. “Looking at the cast list, when we saw it announced, there weren’t many people I knew. And that’s always exciting. It’s always great to cross-pollinate and make the ecosystem bigger and have different influences from different places.”
Recent Howard University graduate Kayleandra White, who plays Leontes and Hermione’s daughter, Perdita, underscores the impact of the cast’s diversity. “I don’t know if there’s a lot of Black classical actors,” she says. “I don’t see a lot of them. So to be able to be a brown body onstage for other people to see, so they know that they can do this, too, and Black people can do Shakespeare, I think that’s really cool.”
Referring to Daniels’s leaderships, she adds: “I feel like somebody cares about having diversity on the stage, and not just cares but is going to do things to implement it.”
Themes of introspection and transformation can be found throughout the Folger season, which continues with Madeline Sayet’s solo show “Where We Belong” from Feb. 15 to March 10 and the Mary Zimmerman play “Metamorphoses” from May 7 to June 16. As the Folger enters a new era of accessibility, the rest of the overhauled institution — featuring an exhibition hall publicly displaying the library’s prized 82 volumes of Shakespeare’s First Folios for the first time — is on track for a spring reopening.
“My lens is not even a hair thinking about who was here before because we’re doing a new thing,” Daniels says. “We’re not leaving people behind, but we’re definitely thinking about why we exist and what we want people to engage with and who we want to engage with.”
Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. folger.edu.