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A CurtainUp Review
The Winter's Tale
By Les GutmanThe principal source material for The Winter's Tale is thought to be a 16th Century romance called Pandosto or The Triumph of Time. Time figures prominently in Shakespeare's story, ultimately becoming its hero. He turns it into a character (portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg) that functions as a chorus, and in Brian Kulick's rendering, it becomes even more. Stuhlbarg is seen lurking about the stage and even the aisles of the Delacorte Theater in a bowler hat, compulsively checking his pocket watch. As the saying goes, Time heals all wounds. Here there are plenty.
The loving, carefree world of the Sicilian royals in which the play opens is quickly ripped to shreds. Leontes the King of Sicily (Keith David) becomes insanely jealous of his pregnant queen Hermione (Aunjanue Ellis) and his best friend, Polixenes King of Bohemia (Graham Winton), imagining that she is carrying his bastard child. Within a few week's time, Leontes takes his beloved son Mamillius (Paul W. Tiesler) from Hermione, dispatches her to prison to await a trial for treason, orders the death of the daughter born to her in prison, learns of Mamillius's death and is told Hermione, having fainted at the trial upon hearing about Mamillius, is now dead too. The cumulative effect of the latter causes Leontes to have a change of heart, suddenly realizing that he was in all respects grievously wrong and that he has some serious repenting to do.
It's Time, of course, that lets him do this, and since this play is billed as a comedy (or, depending on who is doing the listing, a romance), a lot is needed. At the beginning of the second half of the play, Time asks us to set our watches ahead sixteen years. But Time can't do it alone, so Shakespeare has provided a facilitator in the person of Paulina (Randy Danson), a court wife. Perhaps improbably, Ms. Danson makes Paulina into the centerpiece of the Sicilian portion of this production. Cowering to no man, she engineers the breathing space Time requires: henpecking her husband Antigonus (Jonathan Hadary) into persuading the King to save the innocent child (Antigonus is ordered to take it away and abandon it in a remote country) and secreting Hermione, who is still alive, in her home.
In Sicily, Brian Kulick seems to have given his actors fairly free rein. The results, not surprisingly, are mixed. David makes a strong king, his clear, booming voice a more than ample vehicle for conveying his regally abusive irrationality even though he never finds the tricky footing for his dramatic transformation. As his Queen, Ellis is less successful, her line readings improving only slightly for Hermione's histrionic defense. Ditto for Winton, whose Polixenes is ineffectual and affectless. (As a side note, when The Public presented Winter's Tale eleven years ago, Winton played the role of Florizel, the son of his current character.) Much better are Hadary and Henry Stram, the latter playing the courtier Camillo who escapes to Bohemia with Polixenes. Also quite good is young Paul Tiesler, who seems to have benefited from some fine language coaching of which much of the rest of the supporting cast was apparently deprived.
Armed with instructions said to have been delivered to him by Hermione's ghost, Antigonus proceeds to the "shores" [sic] of Bohemia, where he leaves the baby (named Perdita) together with gold and information on her identity. The scenic change needed to accomplish this is achieved most impressively by set designer Riccardo Hernández, who literally pulls the rug out from under Sicily. He's well aided by lighting designer Kenneth Posner, whose work by this point finally doesn't have to compete with the sun. Famously, Antigonus exits "pursued by a bear," a stage direction Brian Kulick has unhelpfully embellished by having the prostrate Leontes covered in a bear skin under which he rises and follows Antigonus away. The play's first half ends when the baby is found by a shepherd (Bill Buell) and his buffoon son (also played by Stuhlbarg).
We return from intermission to find a bucolic Bohemia fancifully represented by what is best described as a grove of huge green Rice Krispy treats on sticks (visible with some effort in the photo at left). While a disguised Polixenes chases his son Florizel (Jesse Pennington) at a sheepshearing festival to prevent him from marrying a shepherd's daughter -- yes, of course, the now-grown Perdita (a wonderfully radiant Erica N. Tazel) -- we are treated to a delicious comic extravaganza. Buell and Stuhlbarg compete for laughs with Bronson Pinchot, who plays the charming rogue, Autolycus. Buell reïnvents the shepherd eccentrically, in the style of Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard, while Stuhlbarg has great fun with his joyously dim-witted son. But it is the masterful Pinchot to whom Kulick has granted the broadest license, and the memorable, effervescent result earns him a berth, if he wants it, in the roster of great Shakespearean comedians.
A couple of disguises later, we are again in Sicily, the statue of Hermione "miraculously" comes to life and three happy couples are at center stage. We are left with but two questions:
Why is this great play not more frequently performed?
How blessed are we that are not simple men?
Editor's Note: For other Shakespeare reviews, including another Winter's Tale, check our Shakespeare Little Instruction Book