The Winter's Tale -- Theater Review

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Perhaps the biggest challenge in staging William Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" simply is making it coherent. Veering wildly from dark psychological drama to raucous comedy and culminating in an ending that contains possibly magical elements -- scholars still are debating -- this late "problem play" has defied the best efforts of many a talented director.

Michael Grief, who has dealt with some pretty difficult contemporary material during recent years -- "Next to Normal," "Grey Gardens" -- rises to the task fairly well in this Central Park mounting. Although it lacks the revelatory aspects of "The Merchant of Venice," starring Al Pacino, with which it is running in repertory, this is a generally satisfying rendition that benefits immeasurably from the idyllic outdoor atmosphere of its presentation.

The complicated plot is set in motion by King Leontes (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) suspecting his wife, Hermione (Linda Emond), of having an affair with the visiting King Polixenes (Jesse L. Martin). Despite the desperate pleas of her friend Paulina (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), Leontes' paranoia results in the apparent death of his wife and the banishment of his infant daughter.

The play's second half takes place years later in Bohemia, where the now-grown daughter, Perdita (Heather Lind), having been raised by an old shepherd (Max Wright), falls in love with Polixenes' son, Florizel (Francois Battiste).

The tone shifts wildly between the play's two parts, with much of Act 2 dominated by the comic shenanigans of a thievish rogue (Hamish Linklater) and the shepherd's hapless son (Jesse Tyler Ferguson).

The production touches all of the bases dutifully. The somber atmosphere of Act 1 is enhanced by Mark Wendland's stark set design dominated by small funereal pyres and by the haunting music by Tom Kitt ("Next to Normal") played by an onstage ensemble. The raucously vulgar humor of Act 2 benefits from the comic talents of Linklater and Ferguson, who clearly are having a fine time.

(Lest you think that the Shakespeare Festival is pandering with its employment of these stars of the sitcoms "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and "Modern Family," be advised that both are longtime New York theater veterans).

Still, there's nothing particularly distinctive about the production, from its staging of the immortal stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear" -- conveyed via shadow puppetry and ominous sound effects -- to its handling of the climactic scene in which a statue of Hermione miraculously comes to life.

The performances, including Santiago-Hudson's beautifully spoken Leontes, Emond's elegant and dignified Hermione and particularly Jean-Baptiste's deeply moving Paulina, are all fine, and the design elements are impeccable.

This is merely a good, not great, "Winter's Tale," and it particularly suffers by comparison to the terrific Bridge Project production directed by Sam Mendes that was seen not too long ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Venue: Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York (Through Aug. 1)
Presented by: New York Shakespeare Festival
Cast: Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Linda Emond, Jesse L. Martin, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hamish Linklater, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Heather Lind, Francois Battiste
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Michael Greif
Scenic designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Ken Posner
Original music: Tom Kitt
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
Choreographer: Dontee Kiehn
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