Greg Hicks in The Winter's Tale
(© Stephanie Berger)
Greg Hicks in The Winter's Tale
(© Stephanie Berger)
A sad tale may be best for winter, but the Royal Shakespeare Company's extremely solid production of The Winter's Tale, now being co-presented by the Lincoln Center Festival and the Park Avenue Armory, proves to be a fine summer diversion.

Indeed, David Farr's clearly delineated and exceedingly well-spoken rendering of this work, one of the Bard's so-called "problem plays," serves as a first-rate introduction to those who have never seen the work, while offering enough pleasures to satisfy those audiences who are familiar with it.

Farr's thoughtful approaach to the play is evident from the first scene -- the play's trickiest -- in which the seemingly happy marriage of King Leontes (Greg Hicks) and his pregnant wife, Hermoine (Kelly Hunter) goes topsy-turvy after Leontes blows up after Hermoine's flirty entreaty to Leontes' boyhood friend, Polixenes (an excellent Darrell D'Silva) to stay longer in their kingdom.

In shockingly short order, he accuses his wife of adultery, sends her to jail, banishes their baby daughter to seemingly certain death, and eventually causes Hermoine's death after disregarding the decision of the Oracle, who exonerates Hermoine of any misdoing.

Leontes' quicksilver transformation to jealous tyrant is always baffling, but Farr engineers just enough affectionate physical business between Hermoine and Polixenes to help make the case. It is also very impressive watching Hicks' emotions flicker swifly across his face until he becomes unglued. Moreover, one can almost see the proverbial wheels turning in his head as he imagines betrayal after betrayal, which extends to his loyal manservant Camilo (well played by John Mackay), who eventually flees with Polixenes. Only Hermoine's sharp-tounged and sharp-witted friend Polina (a forceful Noma Dumezweni) stands up to Leontes.

On the whole, though, Farr seems more at home with the melancholy sections of the play than the comic ones, which dominate most of the second act. While designer Joe Bausor engineers a superlative coup de theatre to alter the playing area from Sicilia to Bohemia (and kudos also for the clever bear costume), once we are in Bohemia, the show's momentum slips a notch or two. Even a dance with a group of phallus-endowed rustics fails to significantly liven up the proceedings.

The issue here lies primarily in casting -- perhaps a result of using the same actors over a series of five plays. None of the characters who should enchant us, notably young lovers Florizel (a handsome if bland Tonji Kasim) and Perdita (a far too earthy Samantha Young), are nearly compelling enough. Brian Doherty scores some moments as the scheming Autolycus, but even his laughs are few and far between.

As good as he is, Hicks is not perfectly cast. He lacks a little of the warmth and vulnerability to make such scenes as the death of his young son, Mamilius (an adorable Alfie Jones), and the show's surprising conclusion as touching as they might be. Furthermore, it would take an actor of almost magical powers to make believable the condemnation of the luminous Hunter, who brings out every inch of Hermoine's dignity, goodness, and humanity.