The dream-infused new Shakespeare in the Park production of The Winter’s Tale offers a fresh solution to the challenge of accommodating the play’s centuries-old, out-of-joint mix of the tragic and the goofy, the mythic and the bawdy. Director Michael Greif uses interracial casting, bird puppets on sticks, live subterranean-sounding music by Tom Kitt, and an abstract bear fashioned from a length of cloth to eye-opening advantage. He turns the whole dark jumble into a sweetly musky, mysterious reverie. And lo, the concoction feels surprisingly right for Central Park’s open-air Delacorte Theater on a hot summer’s night (the show plays through July 30, alternating with The Merchant of Venice). Even the few firepots strategically glowing on the stage add to the seductive mood of campfire ghostliness. They keep away bugs, too.
The story begins with a visit by Polixenes (Jesse L. Martin), the king of Bohemia, to his childhood friend Leontes (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), the king of Sicilia, during which the graciousness shown Polixenes by Leontes’ virtuous, pregnant, queenly wife Hermione (Linda Emond) is mistaken, in Leontes’ warped perception, for proof that wife and friend are adulterous lovers. Worse, despite Hermione’s most fervent and articulate protestations, the implacable Leontes becomes convinced that Polixenes is the father of his wife’s yet unborn child. Jealousy, we know, will lead to tragedy of mythic Greek proportions. And later, myth gives way to a romp of Shakespearean nyuk-nyuk proportions involving disguised identities and magical resurrection, with broad comic diversion added by a shepherd (Max Wright), his clown son (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and the outrageous pickpocket rogue named Autolycus (Hamish Linklater, his slender, loose-limbed body made for antics).
All this unfolds as writ, on a minimal set warmed in the first part by a few sticks of Moorish-style home furnishings, and in the second by fake sheep and live wenches who pop out of trapdoors. Yet the theatrical experience is quietly, ineffably deepened by the contrast of Emond’s pale elegance and regal warmth against the darker skins of Martin and Santiago-Hudson — kings of a Sicilia and Bohemia who just happen to be black men. And as played with flashing power by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the splendid British star of Secrets & Lies, it’s impossible not to read added psychological complexity into the character of the wise and influential noblewoman Paulina, who speaks truth to power in advising Leontes how to repent. (This Paulina is herself half an interracial couple; Gerry Bamman plays her husband, Antigonus, the unfortunate fellow who can’t manage to outrun a bear.)
Rain falls, mist rises, the pickpocket sings (and briefly moons the audience), ghosts walk the earth, a poor shepherd and his clown son become gentlemen: This Winter’s Tale is in tune with the nighttime vibe of summery New York City. A-