”A sad tale’s best for winter,” pronounces the young Prince Mamillius (Alfie Jones or Sebastian Salisbury, sharing the role) near the top of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. And oh, how director David Farr has taken that tenet to heart with his somber, slow-paced Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Park Avenue Armory. No one can fault him for digging into the bleakness in the Bard’s late tragicomedy: The entire first half centers on the irrational, all-consuming jealousy of King Leontes of Sicilia (Greg Hicks) over his pregnant Queen Hermione (Kelly Hunter) and her nonexistent affair with Polixenes (Darrell D’Silva), King of Bohemia and Leontes’ dearest friend. It’s ludicrous, especially since, let’s face it, Hicks is by far the hotter monarch. A clever bit of casting there: Leontes is usually distinguished but grizzled, while Polixenes is played by a slick younger actor so that Leontes’ sudden suspicions at least make some sense. But here, calling Hermione a ”hobbyhorse” is more absurd than ever, Leontes becomes more tortured and unsympathetic, and his paranoid path of destruction cuts even deeper.
Yet there’s still half a play left — the pastoral comedy portion of the evening. Shakespeare barely bothered to write a transition, creating a character called Time (Patrick Romer, hovering above the stage like a benevolent Man in the Moon) who tells us that 16 years have passed, we’re in Bohemia, and remember that baby Leontes threw away Perdita? She’s all grown up and in love with Polixines’ son, Florizel (Tunji Kasim). Wackiness will surely ensue! But I’m still waiting for the wackiness. Farr manages to squeeze all of the fun out of the sheep-shearing festival scene thanks to some absurdly dressed satyrs; I understand the prominent oversized phalluses, but why are they wearing books on their heads? As the rogue Autolycus, who sings, pickpockets, and hams his way through much of the second half of the production, Brian Doherty wears out his welcome all too quickly. Samantha Young makes a lovely, well-spoken Perdita; one wishes she had a stronger Florizel (Kasim looks regal enough, but plays the Prince as a less-evil variation on his Edmund in King Lear).
Still, the most disappointing moment comes in the demise of Leontes’ countryman Antigonus (David Rubin). It’s not because the bear that eats him is represented as a giant paper puppet. It’s because we see the bear eat him at all. ”Exit, pursued by a bear” is Shakespeare’s most famous — and funniest — stage direction. And it’s no throwaway moment: It actually helps bridge the play’s split between tragedy and comedy. It’s also what any fan of The Winter’s Tale waits to see. Well, that and the statue trick, which, fortunately, Farr and his design team render beautifully. A person would have to be made of stone not to be moved by Shakespeare’s redemptive finale. C+
(Tickets: 212-721-6500 or lincolncenterfestival.com)