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The Winter's Tale

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Linda Emond, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and Jesse L. Martin
Photo by Joan Marcus.

In the canon of Shakespeare's plays his romances are his most unclassifiable, and of those The Winter's Tale must surely be the weirdest. It plays with geography (Bohemia has shores? Really?), time (16 years pass in a wink—and in a speech), and even theatrical convention (it contains one of the most famous stage directions of all time: "Exit, pursued by a bear") so cavalierly, it could easily be mistaken for a 1960s (or, let's face, 2000s) parodic deconstruction of the Jacobean stage. Its first half is a tragedy, and its second a comedy; and it depends on magic, prophecy, faith, and fun in the most baffling of cross-genre ways. It's eternal proof that even the Bard's plays could be mutts.

But just as a dog's breeding won't stop determined owners from loving it, The Winter's Tale's psycho-schizophrenic nature can't prevent it from being one of Shakespeare's most absorbing works, or The Public Theater's new production of it at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park from being a mostly gorgeous and glittering interpretation of it. Unlike Daniel Sullivan's version of The Merchant of Venice, which is playing in repertory with it as part of this year's Shakespeare in the Park season, Michael Greif's mounting knows exactly what the work needs—patience—and gives it all it can.

When Greif goes off the rails, which he does only intermittently, he does so only because he's trying to tame this wild wildebeest of a play. Abandoning one of its more bizarre features (the Act IV opening monologue, spoken by Time, that hits the fast-forward button) or reducing its cathartic finale to a wordless hugfest threaten to upset the precarious balance of elements on which the story resides. It's so, if you'll pardon the term, whacked out that trying to apply traditional logic to it only makes it make less sense. The director simply must come to terms with the fact that this is like no other play, and treat it accordingly.

Luckily, that's exactly what Greif does through the remainder of the evening, to splendid effect. Setting the action in a vaguely Mideast-Mediterranean locale, with costumes (Clint Ramos) and a greenhouse-inspired set (by Mark Wendland) to sort of match, he captures the curdling emotions and crippling uncertainties that drive the action. Most of these surround Leontes (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), the Sicilian king who's convinced that his wife Hermione (Linda Emond) has conceived her soon-to-be-born baby with his close friend Polixenes (Jesse L. Martin), the king of Bohemia. She's jailed and her older son with Leontes dies, the would-be assassin Camillo (Byron Jennings) Leontes hires to off Polixenes escapes with the wronged king, and the disputed baby—who, the Oracle of Delphi insists, is legitimate—is saved from death by a caring lord named Antigonus (Gerry Bamman) just before Hermione dies of shock and Antigonus is eaten by a bear. Then things get really crazy.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson (in the foreground), Nyambi Nyambi, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and Bill Heck.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

No matter. If Shakespeare was essentially writing the precursor to modern soap operas, he captured in the silliness the same depth of passion he unlocked in all his plays, with characters and situations that rank among his most memorable. Leontes raging against the unfaithful Hermione only to crumple beneath the weight of the Oracle's dicta; the eventual delightful involvement of the roguish Autolycus (a sublimely silly Hamish Linklater); and the creation of new family units along the lines of the shepherd (Max Wright) and his son (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, at his ultra-caffeinated best) and the abandoned baby Perdita (Heather Lind) and Polixenes's son Florizel (Francois Battiste) are elements alternately heart-rending and hilarious, moving through the apparent impossibilities of human love at faster-than-life speed.

Greif respects all of these moments and more, highlighting the intimacy at their core so you're never distracted by the flotsam and jetsam that can so often impede the appreciation of the play as a whole. He's guided Santiago-Hudson to fiery fury, who threatens to consume the entire Great Lawn with his rage and subsequent despair—his performance is truly one of operatic proportions. And he's highlighted Emond at her most sumptuous, making her the elegant embodiment of order within a too-chaotic world, a golden statute (ahem) in a museum of lead.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste is simply remarkable as Paulina, Antigonus's wife and long-serving attendant of Hermione who alone denounces Leontes for jumping to conclusions: Her laser-focused gaze bores right through him, and you, as she seems to command the very fabric of truth with each new devastating revelation she unleashes. Ferguson and Linklater are put to giddily good use as well in the second half of the play, when their dealings toy around the edges of truthfulness as filtered through the wavering lens of the common folk.

Everyone, however, is exceptional at evoking the unpredictable bipolarity of existence. As, for that matter, is Tom Kitt, who's provided a score (played by a live band) that's alternately lush, romantic, and chilling as it charts the myriad moods on which the action unfolds. You can't predict from one moment to next where the music will take you, but Kitt's choices are unfailingly right.

In that way, it's an ideal companion to The Winter's Tale: a work that demands both nothing and everything, and delivers so much. If you'll probably forever struggle to understand exactly how such a disparate collection of pieces could ever come together in a single work, Greif's production will make you feel perfectly happy about living with the confusion.

The Winter's Tale
Through August 1
Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Performances begin at 8PM.
Performed in repertory with The Merchant of Venice.
Tickets to Shakespeare in the Park are free at:

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