Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Theater Review: The Winter’s Tale

Location: Delacorte Theater in Central Park

Website: Official Shakespeare in the Park site

Starring: Gerry Bamman, Linda Emond, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Byron Jennings, Hamish Linklater, Jesse L. Martin, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Max Wright

My Review: I’m not a Shakespeare expert, by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know that The Winter’s Tale is one of his lesser-known plays. And after seeing the production on offer by this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park festival, I understand why. While the performances are commendable and the set stunning, it’s just…well…not a very good play.

As always, it’s nearly impossible to neatly summarize a Shakespeare play in a few sentences, but I’ll make an attempt. King Leontes has been hosting his beloved childhood friend, King Polixenes, in his home for several months, but the time has come for Polixenes to return home. No amount of persuading from Leontes will convince him to stay longer, but after some cajoling from the kind (and pregnant) Queen Hermione, he agrees to extend his visit. This arouses suspicion in Leontes, who then jumps to all sorts of conclusions and declares his wife and his best friend have been having an affair and that the child she is carrying is a product of their union, and no amount of protesting from the accused two will convince him otherwise. Polixenes flees for home after learning of a plot against his life, and Hermione is imprisoned, gives birth to a daughter, stands trial, and ultimately dies. Then Leontes laments for what he’s lost, finally admitting that his wife was a good and true woman after all. Meanwhile, one of Leontes’ servants has escaped with the newborn baby at the urging of his wife, after the king ordered her to be destroyed. He leaves her on the shore, where she is found by an elderly shepherd and his grown son, who take the baby home and raise her as one of their family.

Sixteen years go by, and the baby girl has grown into the young woman Perdita, who is in love with a young man who is, unbeknownst to her, the son of King Polixenes. They plan to marry, until Polixenes reveals himself to be the boy’s father and refuses to honor the union of his son and a poor shepherd’s daughter. The young lovers escape together to Leontes’ kingdom—where he has been in deep mourning for the past 16 years—with their various family members in hot pursuit. Now that his old friend and his abandoned daughter are back in his kingdom, can Leontes atone for his past and put right all that he did wrong?

Other than the history plays, Shakespeare’s works are generally divided into two categories: The comedies and the tragedies. The Winter’s Tale can never seem to decide which of these it wants to be. With all of Leontes’ jealous raging and the misfortunes it brings, it’s prime tragedy material. But then the clowns of the show appear—the shepherd, his son, and the local thief—and everything is dancing, merriment, and the various bawdy jokes that Shakespeare was so fond of. If a comedy ends with marriage, and a tragedy ends with death, but The Winter’s Tale ends with neither, what does that make it? A tragic comedy? A comic tragedy? A cautionary parable? Or just a really uneven play?

By no means am I suggesting that every play needs to neatly fall into either the “comedy” or “tragedy” category, but The Winter’s Tale doesn’t do well in blending the elements of the two extremes. The first half of the play is so mired in tragic happenings, that it plods along and sags under its own weight. Then the second half (up until the final moments) is so lighthearted and played for laughs, it’s almost goofy. This all leads up to a finale that seems to be plucked out of thin air because Shakespeare suddenly realized he needed an ending for his play. The Winter’s Tale goes out with neither a bang nor a whimper, but more of a yawn and a feeling of “is that all?”

But picking apart the work of a man who’s been dead for 400 years is kind of pointless (not that it stopped from doing it anyway). The Shakespeare in the Park production does the best it can with this subpar work, which almost—but not quite—makes it a worthwhile endeavor. The cast is phenomenal, with Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Pauline being the surprised standout in the serious roles. Pauline is the one person who has no fear in telling Leontes what a fool he is, with the few scenes she appears in involving grandiose speeches attesting that fact, and Jean-Baptiste chews her words raw and angrily spits them in Leontes’ face. Whenever she exits the stage, the show takes a needed pause for the applause that inevitably erupts.

But the real scene stealers are the aforementioned clowns. Max Wright and Jesse Tyler Ferguson (who, for better or worse, will be most recognized as “the dad from Alf” and Mitchell from Modern Family) are the shepherd and his son, and their scenes are so delightful that it’s a shame their characters don’t appear until midway through the show. Part bumbling fools and part moral compass, they’re the everyman (everymen?) who you want to root for among all the royal nonsense.

Also running away with the show—much as he did last summer in Twelfth Night—is Hamish Linklater as Autolycus, the resident criminal. He’s a louse and a thief, who skillfully robs the shepherd’s son blind, but is so nonchalant about it, it’s impossible to be angry with him. Everything he does is for self-promotion, whether that means picking pockets on the road, selling stolen goods at a local festival, or disguising himself as a nobleman. No tactic is beneath Autolycus, and Linklater plays him as such a smooth criminal that you can’t help but to admire all that he gets away with.

Bottom Line: While the moments that are played for comedy shine, on the whole, The Winter’s Tale is an uneven and mostly uninteresting play. Everyone involved in the production elevates it as best they can, but there’s only so much that can be done with the text. Various scenes and character actions seem out of place or are never fully explained (what exactly is the root of Leontes’ insane jealousy, anyway?), so empathy for these characters and the plights set upon them never fully forms. I can’t imagine that The Winter’s Tale is an easy play to take on, and I applaud Shakespeare in the Park for taking on a less-popular Shakespeare work, but hopefully next summer will see the return of his stronger pieces.

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