Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, in Central Park

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Winter’s Tale
By William Shakespeare
The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s most
magnificent plays. Unlike the great histories and tragedies, though, it’s
almost impossible to get the scope of its magnificence across in production.
Often called a romance for lack of any other neat term, the work is famously
bisected into a terribly disquieting, tragic first half, set in Sicilia, where
jealous King Leontes causes the banishment, death or apparent death of everyone
closest to him, and a lighthearted, comic-pastoral second half, set 16 years
later in Bohemia (mostly), where the heirs to Leontes and the Bohemian King
Polixenes set a healing process in motion through their eloquently intense love.
This odd bifurcation, and much else in the delightfully improbable fairy-tale
plot, presents directors and designers with huge problems of continuity and

Brian Kulick’s Central Park
production has its problems, but it at least has the virtue of not being egregiously
lopsided. As in his 1998 Pericles at the Public Theater, Kulick has been
once again ill-served by a set designer (Riccardo Hernandez) whose assertive
cleverness is distracting and confining. Kulick himself has also made self-consciously
odd choices that confuse and obfuscate. It occurred to me midway through this
three-hour production that the late work The Winter’s Tale–with
its complex and subtle verse and its majestically circumspect, hibernal view
of the cycle of life’s seasons–is just about the worst Shakespearean
choice imaginable for an outdoor summer production, and that some of the imposed
cleverness might be overcompensation for that. Happily, the cast contains a
number of actors who make you forget the distractions, redeeming whole scenes
with sheer zaniness or emotional force. The large thrust stage at the Delacorte
has been painted white and rounded upward at the back to resemble a skater’s
trick-ramp. For the Sicilia set, this is outfitted with a large red rug, a few
elegant chairs and two pairs of wide rolling panels bearing cropped reproductions
of famous allegorical paintings by Botticelli and Mantegna. The paintings–of
the armored, virtuous goddess Minerva expelling the Vices and the love-goddess
Venus from the Garden of Virtue; and of a more sober, clothed Venus watching
over the nude, sleeping war-god Mars as three mischievous fauns play with his
armor and weapons–are intelligently chosen to reflect the play’s twin
obsessions with love and violence. The way the panels are periodically broken
up and recombined to form various impromptu "rooms" is also fine.
What keeps the show from gathering steam during its first act is Kulick’s
insistence on using these "rooms" as picture frames for various self-important
attitudes and poses.

Act I begins with a photographer
taking shots of the gathered court under an old-fashioned hooded camera, with
everyone freezing in their formal attire, moving around and then freezing again.
This goes on for so long during the initial dialogue–with several speaking
characters seated in chairs facing upstage, and with everyone miked so that
their voices come from everywhere–that it’s impossible to tell who
is talking, let alone who they are. Shakespeare’s language is hard enough
for the average modern groundling to get used to without this added alienation,
and the posing hopelessly flattens Leontes’ purportedly fiery gestures
throughout the section without ever creating a context in which flatness reads
as an interesting new perspective. Keith David eventually warms to the role
of Leontes nicely, but when he tears the sheet off a bed to express jealous
rage, or wipes his wife Hermione’s kisses off his own face with a handkerchief,
he comes off as a reluctant automaton carrying out trite instructions he hates.

On top of this, Aunjanue Ellis, as
pregnant Hermione, so understates her initial reaction to the accusation that
she has committed adultery with Polixenes, she seems literally undisturbed by
it. Her confidante Paulina, played by the redoubtable Randy Danson, also fails
to muster the needed authority when trying to shame Leontes by confronting him
with his newborn daughter, Perdita. For reasons I won’t even guess at,
however, both these actresses suddenly rise to heights of commanding grandeur
after these slow starts, so that Hermione’s self-defense at her trial and
Paulina’s castigation of Leontes after Hermione’s apparent death become
high points of the evening. Henry Stram and Jonathan Hadary, as the wise courtier
Camillo (who goes into exile rather than follow an order to murder Polixenes)
and the too-loyal courtier Antigonus (who unwisely obeys the order to abandon
baby Perdita on a foreign shore), are also splendidly colorful and convincing.
At midpoint, the production thus seems to have found its pace.

Confusion unfortunately returns with
the most obscure interpretation of the famous stage direction "Exit, pursued
by a bear" that I’ve ever seen or heard of. Kulick has Leontes remain
prostrate on the floor, half covered by a bearskin rug, as the scene changes
to the Bohemian seacoast (wherever that might be… Remember, it’s a fairytale).
Then, after Antigonus abandons Perdita’s cradle and walks away, Leontes
(who is supposed to be back in his own country) rises with the rug draped around
him and, rather than "pursuing" Antigonus, simply ambles off distractedly
in the same direction. So baffling is this key scene that every conversation
I overheard at intermission consisted of bewildered efforts to figure out just
what happened. I suppose it’s possible that the whole thing is deeper than
I’ve grasped, that conflating Leontes and the anthropophagous bear sheds
hitherto unimagined light on Shakespeare’s text. Trouble is, none of the
rest of Kulick’s, Hernandez’s or costume designer Anita Yavich’s
obtrusively arbitrary choices put me in mind to ponder the matter.

The Bohemia setting, for instance,
is created by splitting the stage to reveal an anomalous diagonal "stream"
and replacing the rug and painting panels with a grove of rectangular, metallic
trees whose blunt overtones of rubber-stamp industrialism read as a big, zealous
reference to nothing in particular. Polixenes and Camillo, disguised to eavesdrop
on the lovemaking of Polixenes’ son Florizel and the grown "shepherdess"
Perdita, enter as (I kid you not) the spitting images of Chekhov and Lenin.
Moreover (speaking of Lenin), no clear class distinction is ever established
in the show between aristocrats and peasants, either by the costumes or by the
actors’ vocal deliveries, so the exchange of clothes between Florizel and
the petty thief Autolycus in Act IV ("Should I now meet my father, He would
not call me son") comes off as superfluous nonsense.

Luckily, the comic roles in Bohemia
(and later, back in Sicilia) are superbly done, providing their own wonderfully
peculiar rhythms and tones. Bill Buell and Michael Stuhlbarg, as the old shepherd
and son who find Perdita and become her adoptive family, are veritable founts
of refreshing idiocies–with Buell especially memorable for his bug-eyed
credulity and Stuhlbarg for his endearing stutter and hopping gait. Bronson
Pinchot as Autolycus is, somewhat to my surprise, even more resourceful than
the other two at the splendidly diverting game of playing their characters for
the fools they are. The cloying impression this actor leaves in most of his
tv and film roles is no guide whatever to his performance here; with his seemingly
endless string of intelligently ridiculous gags, he brings impressive breadth
to Autolycus’ good-natured malevolence and looks like one of the surest
hands onstage.

One other significant problem deserves
mention: an extremely provocative suggestion made early on by the racial mix
of the lead roles that is never elaborated or touched on again (perhaps in the
spirit of the Public Theater’s longstanding tradition of race-blind casting
without regard to the resulting implications). Leontes and Hermione are played
by dark-skinned African-Americans, but their young son Mamillius is played by
a blond white boy (Paul W. Tiesler)–the suggestion being that Hermione
may indeed have been unfaithful years ago with either white Polixenes (Graham
Winton) or someone else. I welcome such a suggestion, of course; the complexity
of relationships it implies just adds to the richness of the plot. Trouble arises
only if you’re timid about it and unsure whether you want people to take
it seriously, in which case you come off like a gambler tossing a chip.

Delacorte Theater in Central Park
(midpark, enter W. 81st St. or E. 79th St.), 539-8750, through July 16.