The Winter's Tale By William Shakespeare The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's most magnificent plays. Unlike the great histories and tragedies, though, it's almost impossible to get the scope of its magnificence across in production. Often called a romance for lack of any other neat term, the work is famously bisected into a terribly disquieting, tragic first half, set in Sicilia, where jealous King Leontes causes the banishment, death or apparent death of everyone closest to him, and a lighthearted, comic-pastoral second half, set 16 years later in Bohemia (mostly), where the heirs to Leontes and the Bohemian King Polixenes set a healing process in motion through their eloquently intense love. This odd bifurcation, and much else in the delightfully improbable fairy-tale plot, presents directors and designers with huge problems of continuity and consistency.
Brian Kulick's Central Park production has its problems, but it at least has the virtue of not being egregiously lopsided. As in his 1998 Pericles at the Public Theater, Kulick has been once again ill-served by a set designer (Riccardo Hernandez) whose assertive cleverness is distracting and confining. Kulick himself has also made self-consciously odd choices that confuse and obfuscate. It occurred to me midway through this three-hour production that the late work The Winter's Tale?with its complex and subtle verse and its majestically circumspect, hibernal view of the cycle of life's seasons?is just about the worst Shakespearean choice imaginable for an outdoor summer production, and that some of the imposed cleverness might be overcompensation for that. Happily, the cast contains a number of actors who make you forget the distractions, redeeming whole scenes with sheer zaniness or emotional force. The large thrust stage at the Delacorte has been painted white and rounded upward at the back to resemble a skater's trick-ramp. For the Sicilia set, this is outfitted with a large red rug, a few elegant chairs and two pairs of wide rolling panels bearing cropped reproductions of famous allegorical paintings by Botticelli and Mantegna. The paintings?of the armored, virtuous goddess Minerva expelling the Vices and the love-goddess Venus from the Garden of Virtue; and of a more sober, clothed Venus watching over the nude, sleeping war-god Mars as three mischievous fauns play with his armor and weapons?are intelligently chosen to reflect the play's twin obsessions with love and violence. The way the panels are periodically broken up and recombined to form various impromptu "rooms" is also fine. What keeps the show from gathering steam during its first act is Kulick's insistence on using these "rooms" as picture frames for various self-important attitudes and poses.
Act I begins with a photographer taking shots of the gathered court under an old-fashioned hooded camera, with everyone freezing in their formal attire, moving around and then freezing again. This goes on for so long during the initial dialogue?with several speaking characters seated in chairs facing upstage, and with everyone miked so that their voices come from everywhere?that it's impossible to tell who is talking, let alone who they are. Shakespeare's language is hard enough for the average modern groundling to get used to without this added alienation, and the posing hopelessly flattens Leontes' purportedly fiery gestures throughout the section without ever creating a context in which flatness reads as an interesting new perspective. Keith David eventually warms to the role of Leontes nicely, but when he tears the sheet off a bed to express jealous rage, or wipes his wife Hermione's kisses off his own face with a handkerchief, he comes off as a reluctant automaton carrying out trite instructions he hates.
On top of this, Aunjanue Ellis, as pregnant Hermione, so understates her initial reaction to the accusation that she has committed adultery with Polixenes, she seems literally undisturbed by it. Her confidante Paulina, played by the redoubtable Randy Danson, also fails to muster the needed authority when trying to shame Leontes by confronting him with his newborn daughter, Perdita. For reasons I won't even guess at, however, both these actresses suddenly rise to heights of commanding grandeur after these slow starts, so that Hermione's self-defense at her trial and Paulina's castigation of Leontes after Hermione's apparent death become high points of the evening. Henry Stram and Jonathan Hadary, as the wise courtier Camillo (who goes into exile rather than follow an order to murder Polixenes) and the too-loyal courtier Antigonus (who unwisely obeys the order to abandon baby Perdita on a foreign shore), are also splendidly colorful and convincing. At midpoint, the production thus seems to have found its pace.
Confusion unfortunately returns with the most obscure interpretation of the famous stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear" that I've ever seen or heard of. Kulick has Leontes remain prostrate on the floor, half covered by a bearskin rug, as the scene changes to the Bohemian seacoast (wherever that might be... Remember, it's a fairytale). Then, after Antigonus abandons Perdita's cradle and walks away, Leontes (who is supposed to be back in his own country) rises with the rug draped around him and, rather than "pursuing" Antigonus, simply ambles off distractedly in the same direction. So baffling is this key scene that every conversation I overheard at intermission consisted of bewildered efforts to figure out just what happened. I suppose it's possible that the whole thing is deeper than I've grasped, that conflating Leontes and the anthropophagous bear sheds hitherto unimagined light on Shakespeare's text. Trouble is, none of the rest of Kulick's, Hernandez's or costume designer Anita Yavich's obtrusively arbitrary choices put me in mind to ponder the matter.
The Bohemia setting, for instance, is created by splitting the stage to reveal an anomalous diagonal "stream" and replacing the rug and painting panels with a grove of rectangular, metallic trees whose blunt overtones of rubber-stamp industrialism read as a big, zealous reference to nothing in particular. Polixenes and Camillo, disguised to eavesdrop on the lovemaking of Polixenes' son Florizel and the grown "shepherdess" Perdita, enter as (I kid you not) the spitting images of Chekhov and Lenin. Moreover (speaking of Lenin), no clear class distinction is ever established in the show between aristocrats and peasants, either by the costumes or by the actors' vocal deliveries, so the exchange of clothes between Florizel and the petty thief Autolycus in Act IV ("Should I now meet my father, He would not call me son") comes off as superfluous nonsense.
Luckily, the comic roles in Bohemia (and later, back in Sicilia) are superbly done, providing their own wonderfully peculiar rhythms and tones. Bill Buell and Michael Stuhlbarg, as the old shepherd and son who find Perdita and become her adoptive family, are veritable founts of refreshing idiocies?with Buell especially memorable for his bug-eyed credulity and Stuhlbarg for his endearing stutter and hopping gait. Bronson Pinchot as Autolycus is, somewhat to my surprise, even more resourceful than the other two at the splendidly diverting game of playing their characters for the fools they are. The cloying impression this actor leaves in most of his tv and film roles is no guide whatever to his performance here; with his seemingly endless string of intelligently ridiculous gags, he brings impressive breadth to Autolycus' good-natured malevolence and looks like one of the surest hands onstage.
One other significant problem deserves mention: an extremely provocative suggestion made early on by the racial mix of the lead roles that is never elaborated or touched on again (perhaps in the spirit of the Public Theater's longstanding tradition of race-blind casting without regard to the resulting implications). Leontes and Hermione are played by dark-skinned African-Americans, but their young son Mamillius is played by a blond white boy (Paul W. Tiesler)?the suggestion being that Hermione may indeed have been unfaithful years ago with either white Polixenes (Graham Winton) or someone else. I welcome such a suggestion, of course; the complexity of relationships it implies just adds to the richness of the plot. Trouble arises only if you're timid about it and unsure whether you want people to take it seriously, in which case you come off like a gambler tossing a chip.
Delacorte Theater in Central Park (midpark, enter W. 81st St. or E. 79th St.), 539-8750, through July 16.