Shakespeare in the Park, presented by the Public Theater, on Wednesday, July 7.
Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale is a strange play—a sometimes ungainly mash-up of Othello and Romeo and Juliet with a dash of The Tempest for good measure—and I, for one, consider the Tempest elements the most alluring. Storms and shipwrecks, curses and prophesies and seemingly impossible restorations, give The Winter’s Tale a fantastical, fairy tale quality.
Aesthetically, Michael Greif’s production captures that quality well, leaping off the play’s whimsical mishmash of cultural and historical references (the Emperor of Russia and the Oracle of Delphi together at last!) with gorgeous costumes, sets, and props of no particular time, blending the West and Middle East with glorious abandon. The Oracle is accompanied by both thuribles of incense and a pair of Whirling Dervishes. Breathtaking puppets bring to life flocks of birds and predatory bears. The production looks like a fairy tale made flesh, but doesn’t feel like one, not really. Despite the compelling performances, the Tale stays earthbound precisely when it should take flight.
The play is divided into two halves: first the dark mad-jealousy half set in Sicilia and then the significantly lighter star-crossed-lovers half set in Bohemia. Of these, the first is more compelling in this production for one simple reason: Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Jean-Baptiste plays Paulina, best friend to Queen Hermione (Linda Edmond), whom King Leontes (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) wrongly accuses of adultery with his dearest friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Jesse L. Martin). Obviously Paulina is external to Leontes’s imagined love triangle, but Jean-Baptiste’s Paulina makes her presence known, raging against the king and his courtiers for wrongly persecuting the innocent queen. Jean-Baptiste is always an interesting, charismatic actor, and she has a knack (and a mellifluous voice) for Shakespearean language, but here she is nothing less than riveting, an almost terrifying presence in her righteous fury.
I was certain that the production was going to portray her Paulina as a sorceress, and as I watched Jean-Baptiste, for the first time, I saw how well that would work to handle the play’s most bizarre plot turn: the climactic transformation of a statue of Hermione, commissioned by Paulina, into the queen herself restored to life. Shakespeare’s writing on this point is very ambiguous. One can argue that Hermione never died, that Paulina was hiding her the whole time, or one can believe that the statue did transform once Leontes had fully repented and Perdita had returned home—there is text to support both readings. But the first explanation, though rational, is unsatisfying. Why did Hermione never search out her daughter or seek to build a new life for herself? She can take Leontes back or not, but choosing to live in limbo for nearly two decades seems self-destructively spiteful.
Magic sidesteps the issue and, in the context of such a fairy tale–esque story, seems perfectly appropriate. Paulina, confronted with the stark words of the Oracle and her friend’s fathomless pain, might well choose to act as a more benevolent version of the fairy in Sleeping Beauty. She could cast Hermione into sleep until Perdita’s return awakens her, like a kiss from a prince, sparing the queen all pain until the prophesy can be fulfilled, the curse of heirlessness lifted from Leontes’s reign, and what’s left of her family reunited.
And if you’re going all out with the ominous thunderclaps and a sublimely otherworldly Oracle—and if you have such a Paulina as Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who projects more power than anyone else on stage—why not go all out and embrace the play’s supernatural side? Failing to do so seems like a missed opportunity, and to some extent, it leaves Jean-Baptiste hanging and denies the play’s climax its full impact.
That unclimactic climax left me disappointed, but it didn’t negate my enjoyment of the production, which truly is splendid to look at. Lake Simons’s puppets are stunning—from the adorable nodding sheep that pop up in Bohemia to the menacing shadow-bear that kills Antigonus (he who famously “exit[s], pursued by a bear,” in one of Shakespeare’s few lines of stage directions). Mark Wendland’s sets, dramatically lit by Ken Posner, are beautiful and evocative, and Greif keeps the action briskly paced and energetic.
Jean-Baptiste might have been the standout, but the other actors also play their parts well. Edmond exudes self-respect and intelligence—her Hermione isn’t the Patient Griselda type, which I appreciate—and Santiago-Hudson and Martin hold onto the humanity of the excessively volatile kings (I particularly adore Martin’s handling of Shakespeare’s language). The naive young lovers, Perdita and Florizel, can be exasperating as written, but Heather Lind and Francois Battiste make the best of them, and Max Wright and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who play the shepherds who adopt Perdita into their family, are both funny and endearing. The silliness in Bohemia can easily turn the shepherds into mere buffoons and all the plotting into empty farce, but Wright and Ferguson give the characters heart and, by extension, lend the proceedings some emotional resonance.
I still don’t think it’s enough emotional resonance, though. I just can’t get over the energy drop in that big final scene, the sudden step back from the magical cliff. The Winter’s Tale is hardly one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, but it can be better than this. Greif’s storytelling has verve, but his happily-ever-afters need more fairy dust.