by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grief
Featuring Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jesse L. Martin, Linda Emond,
Byron Jennings, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Max Wright
A Production of the Joseph Papp Public Theatre
New York Shakespeare Festival
at the Delacorte in Central Park

Reviewed by David Spencer

I wish the production of The Winter’s Tale were as good as the one of The Merchant of Venice, with which it is running in repertory at the Delacorte in Central Park, but alas, Michael Grief’s production is only half as good—literally.

                  Up until intermission, the drama in Sicilia, as King Leontes (Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the poster boy for towering rage) tragically plays out the false accusation of infidelity he makes toward wife Hermione (elegant Linda Emond) and best friend King of Bohemia Polixenes (sensitive, bewildered Jesse L. Martin) has a nice, crisp spirit to it, and a bit of exotica: with casting, music and costumes, there’s the mild suggestion of two African kings (though the suggestion doesn’t extend to all of the court, nor the countryside seen later). The “domestic” drama is hot, and the supporting characters are as memorable as the royalty, with Byron Jennings’ touchingly conflicted Camillo having to betray his sworn allegiance in the cause of justice, Gerry Bamman’s stoic Antigonus assuming the burden of exile to protect Leontes’ innocent (and quite legitimate) infant daughter, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s fiery Paulina (wife to Antigonus) railing fearlessly against King Leontes jealous delusions.

                  I suppose one might even grant the production points for its first scenes in Bohemia—after Antigonus is eaten by the bear, through baby Perdita being discovered in her basket by the Shepherd of Max Wright…though if it’s not your first time seeing Mr. Wright, you’re privy to a very familiar bag of schticky comic tics.

                  But after intermission as we continue in Bohemia—when the storytelling outcomes are at their most telegraphed—the sense of clear purpose gets muddled among a welter of mismatched comic styles (Mr. Wright’s, Jesse Tyler Fergusen’s as Shepherd’s son Clown, and most egregiously, Hamish Linklater’s in an ill-conceived, grating interpretation of conman rogue Autolycus) and never recovers. And upon the inevitable return to a repentant Leontes’ domain, Mr. Grief’s direction fails to find an interesting handle on the more ceremonial writing, such that the succession of schematic scenes making measured-pace progress toward resolution seems neutral and academic. Ironically, I don’t mean to be hard on Mr. Grief: these scenes are the enormous challenge of Winter’s Tale, and are among the controversial reasons why scholars debate whether or not the play is to be considered among his greats.

                  …and this Summer may be among the considerations that inform whether or not you attend, even though that first half is (mostly) bliss…

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