The colorful heap that is The Winter's Tale--lifted, incidentally, from an early novel by Robert Greene called Pandosto: The Triumph of Time--isn't unprecedented. Yet its architecture is unlike anything in Shakespeare's oeuvre. What distinguishes it is a dividing of the narrative into halves, as crudely joined as a December morning would be with a July afternoon.
In the first three wintery acts, King Leontes, unhappy that his beloved friend King Polixenes is quitting Sicilia's court to return to Bohemia, asks wife Hermione to change the would-be traveler's mind. When she does, Leontes suspects she prevailed so easily because she and Polixenes are lovers. Within minutes, he banishes Polixenes and causes the pregnant Hermione to give birth prematurely to a daughter, Perdita. Various other defections and deaths (Leontes' son, Mamillius) and banishments (including the infant Perdita) follow. So does Hermione's apparent demise, only minutes after a letter arrives from the oracle exonerating her and condemning Leontes, who then executes another 180-degree shift to repentance.
In the summery final two acts, Perdita--now 16 and being raised by two unprepossessing shepherds--and Florizel--Polixenes's spirited son--have found each other. They plan to wed, but Polixenes won't hear of such a misalliance with a supposed shepherd girl. The lovers decide to flee to Sicilia, where it is revealed that Perdita is Leontes' long-ago banished daughter. The exultant courtiers gather to celebrate her return, and to view a statue of Hermione that, in what is considered one of Shakespeare's greatest coups de theatre, comes to life. At which moment peace and happiness reign once again.
So that's the plot--with the two mismatched parts clearly meant to illustrate death and resurrection. Although Harold Bloom dismisses such an interpretation in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, he's not very persuasive; almost every symbol in the text points either at an end or a new beginning to something. And in his Joseph Papp Public Theater production, Brian Kulick does everything in his considerable power to elaborate on and enhance these major themes. His is a whopping good realization of a problematic, but ultimately moving, play.
What are the problems? Hoo-boy. The major obstacle is Leontes, whose rage seems to come from nowhere. Or, put another way, it comes from the same place where so many of the Bard's tyrants seem to derive their foolhardiness: their thick-headedness. Needless to say, Shakespeare had handled sexual jealousy before in Othello. And taking on the theme again, perhaps he thought that he didn't even need as much as a flimsy handkerchief to trigger self-destructive behavior. But in giving Leontes little or no provocation for carrying-on so, he created a situation audiences would likely resist and, possibly worse, actors would have a devil of a time playing.
Among the myriad minor detractions throughout The Winter's Take is the fact that Hermione is present when the oracle's note is read aloud but then, in the play's final scene, she declares that she'd heard about it second-hand. Although scholars have mooted sundry causes for the discrepancy, the explanation is probably as simple as its being a loose end Shakespeare never got around to clearing up. Another of the tragi-comedy's sticking points is the famous stage direction "Exit, pursued by a bear." If you're a director, what do you do with that?
Well, in just one example of Kulick's string of inspirations, he turns "Exit, pursued by a bear" into a brilliant symbol. When Leontes is overcome by grief at having lost his wife and son, he falls to the ground, is covered by a bear rug, and remains where he's landed. When in the scene immediately following, Antigonus--who has the unsavory task of taking Perdita away from Sicilia--is menaced by said bear, Leontes merely rises with the rug on his back and charges. Kulick has made literal Leontes's responsibility for Antigonus' frightful end.
Understanding that the words are the thing, they've kept the surroundings simple. The action unfolds on a Peter Brook-white floor that rounds up at the back to a low-rise wall. On the floor, Hernandez has placed a pair of two-part murals on casters. One is a reproduction of Sandro Botticelli's "Venus and Mars"; the other, even more pertinent to the occasion, is a reproduction of Andrea Mantegna's "Triumph and Virtue." Together and separately, the murals are spun around the stage by men in livery to create various indoor and outdoor Sicilian spaces. To conjure Bohemia, where a sheep-shearing ritual is underway, the murals are rolled off-stage and two rows of box trees looking like shorn sheep are brought on to stand guard.
Where Kulick has been less than lucky in The Winter's Take is with his casting, which has the odd effect of making Sicilia and Bohemia look not so much the emblems of death and birth as the realms of bad acting and good acting. As Sicilia's monarchs, neither Keith David nor Aunjanue Ellis make music from Shakespeare's language. Yes, the characters they play are brought quickly to fiery emotional heights, but neither actor scales the treacherous peaks with finesse. If there is a way to find nuances in Leontes's fury, David hasn't done it. He rails at one bombastic pitch throughout. Ellis, regal in Anita Yavich's elegant empire maternity gown, speaks as if she had been carved from marble long before being brought out as a statue. Assailed by Leontes, she responds as if she's being updated about a troublesome scullery maid. Even the usually reliable Jonathan Hadary as Antigonus is unable to portray benevolence as much more than bland acquiescence.
Ah, but in Bohemia, all is lively and gay. Erica N. Tazel is a lovely Perdita. She's particularly alluring in Shakespeare's second-best flower distributing scene. Jesse Pennington's Florizel is a nimble lad with spark in his speech and love in his eye. Together, the actors make something rapturous and inevitable of young love, speaking their lines as liltingly as they might toss off a medley of popular tunes.
The best, however, has been saved for last in this congratulatory review. The rustics are magnificent. And it's not often that can be said about Shakespeare, where the rough-hewn characters usually deliver comic lines that have long since lost their edge. Bronson Pinchot, who is never less than a hoot in whatever he does, shows up here as a first-class Shakespearean. Never making a false move as the quick-tongued, fast-fingered Autolycus, he struts and minces and sings and impersonates as if he were Shakespeare's own choice for the role. He's not above fooling around with the verse either, at one point pronouncing "didoes" as "dildos." The second after he does, he sneaks a peek at the audience to see how solidly his little jape has landed.
Equaling Pinchot is Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays both stolid Time and Clown, the naïve shepherd who's Autolycus's frequent dupe. With his body parts going in different directions whenever he tries to express himself, Stuhlbarg is the adorable fool who, never doing anything right, somehow can never do anything wrong. He's the well-suited son to Bill Buell's beautifully realized father. In tandem they are stage magnets; all eyes go to them.
That's right, folks, you heard right: The Public, where Shakespeare is often a touch-and-go affair, currently has a stable of reliable players. And perhaps it's time to take a next step with them in order to give the Bard his due. Maybe impresario George Wolfe ought to establish an in-house repertory company under Kulick's direction. The acting roster might well include Pinchot, Stuhlbarg, Buell, Randy Danson (forceful as Hermione's supportive Paulina), and Henry Stram, who has long proved his worth and does again this time as Leontes's spurned but loyal Camillo.
All of the above participants, plus many of their colleagues, have taken Mamillius' line about a sad tale being best for winter and shown, with Kulick's assured guidance, that this Winter's Tale is also a hot bet for summer.