By Melissa Rose Bernardo
Updated February 27, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST
Joan Marcus

A man being chased and consumed by a bear is not the strangest thing that happens in Shakespeare’s schizophrenic late-career work The Winter’s Tale. There’s a message from an Oracle, a resurrection via witchcraft, and a 16-year gap that the Bard bridges with a short here’s-what-you-missed speech by a character called, um, Time. The show is massive, almost cinematic — and perhaps that’s why it’s the perfect vehicle for director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road).

The stunning rendering on display at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (in repertory with the company’s beautifully somber Cherry Orchard) embraces all of Winter’s Tale‘s disparate elements, rather than watering them down. First, there’s an Othello-like domestic tragedy: Leontes (Simon Russell Beale), the King of Sicilia, believes his pregnant wife, Hermione (Rebecca Hall), is playing around with his pal Polixenes (Josh Hamilton), the King of Bavaria. (True, they are rather friendly, as evidenced by their ”paddling palms and pinching fingers.” But one look at the doe-eyed, radiant Hall should be enough to convince anyone that Leontes is off his royal rocker.) As Leontes’ paranoia infects, alienates, and even kills those around him, Beale manages to be simultaneously sympathetic and tyrannical.

And then, in a sudden shifting of gears, the show becomes a song-and-dance-filled pastoral comedy! Here, perhaps, is Mendes’ smartest choice of the night — placing the intermission after the Act 4, scene 1 speech by Time (the wonderfully dotty Richard Easton), teasing us with the 16-year flash-forward, and eliminating all the usual post-interval ”huh?” looks that inevitably accompany the play’s jarring tonal shift. Think shepherds, shepherdesses, lost children, and Ethan Hawke cracking jokes, playing the guitar, and picking people’s pockets. (Some may say that Mendes’ staging of the sheep-shearing feast — a red-white-and-blue-trimmed picnic/hoedown — goes overboard, but really, does anyone truly know what went down at an early-17th-century sheep-shearing?) And just because Shakespeare resolved things tidily (this is technically a comedy) doesn’t mean that Mendes has to. As the author told us, ”a sad tale’s best for winter.” A