By Lucy Komisar
Shakespeare certainly understood the neurotic jealousy of husbands. In this play, a very foolish man named Leontes locks up his wife and orders the death of his infant daughter out of belief the child was fathered by his best friend. His metaphor is of a man who has his pond fish’d by his next neighbor.
Of course, since it’s The Winter’s Tale, these are no ordinary folks: Leontes is King of Sicilia, the friend is Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and the wife is Hermione, daughter of the Emperor of Russia. Now it seems more understandable, as Shakespeare exaggerated royal foibles to entertain commoners.
But if these are royals, there’s something wrong with how director Michael Greif has Ruben Santiago-Hudson play Leontes. He’s a tyrant who acts like a lower-class thug, a screamer whose only emotional technique is raising the decibel level of his voice. Santiago-Hudson just yells too much, which is the mark of an actor who can’t express anger subtly. Jesse L. Martin portrays Polixenes in a much more regal style. And Linda Emond, superb as the patient and put-upon queen, has a controlled, modulated passion that puts her leagues above her husband.
Leontes jails Hermione, who, it is announced, dies after the birth of her child. Leontes orders a lord of his court, the good Camillo (Byron Jennings), to kill the infant, but Camillo flees with her and Polixenes, whom he has decided to serve.
The best parts of the play are performed by the classically Shakespearean minor comedic characters. They appear in Bohemia, where Camillo has taken the baby and abandoned her – with hope for her survival — in a field. A shepherd (Max Wright) and his son (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) do a wonderfully comic scene on finding the infant, who the shepherd names Perdita, Latin for lost.
The story picks up 16 years later, when Perdita (Heather Lind), brought up as a peasant girl, chances to meet the disguised son (Francois Battiste) of King Polixenes. Sparks ignite – but alas, only in the story, not in their performances.
Kudos in the acting department go to Hamish Linklater as Autolycus, a Bohemian rogue, a swindler, a master pickpocket, a hayseed with daffodils, who in Greif’s clever shtick, moons the audience.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste is also very good as Paulina, the tough wife of the lord Antigonus (well played by Gerry Bamman). Jean-Baptiste’s Paulina is cool, smart and insightful as she tries to persuade the stupid king of his errors. As there’s magic in Shakespeare, all turns out all right in the end.
The stage set by Mark Wendland is a charming pastiche that starts out redolent of India, with lush carpets, fiery braziers, and bowls piled with pyramids of oranges, mangoes, and marigolds. An elegant glass semicircular wall at the backdrop gets raised and lowered to provide different settings. And the magical natural elegance of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park lends a charm to the production that makes one pardon its flaws.
The Winter’s Tale.
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Michael Greif.
The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater, entrance Central Park West at 81st Street or Fifth Avenue at 79th Street, Central Park at 81st Street, New York City.
Opened July 1; closes August 1, 2010.