Shakespeare in the Park Repertory
nytheatre.com review by Various Reviewers
June 26, 2010
The Winter's Tale (reviewed by Lynn Marie Macy)
"A sad tale's best for winter" says Shakespeare's Mamillius (endearingly portrayed by Alexander Maier in Michael Greif's fine production in Central Park). But summer at the Delacorte is an excellent season for the telling of "bittersweet" tales as well. The Merchant of Venice and The Winter's Tale are running in repertory using the same company of actors (with a few exceptions). The Winter's Tale has in common its "tragicomic" elements with The Merchant of Venice and here Greif has emphasized the play's dreamlike quality and the haunting consequences of human frailty.
The story begins in the dark court of Sicilia where King Leontes (an impassioned Ruben Santiago-Hudson) irrationally believes his wife Hermione (the regal and dignified Linda Emond) is having an affair with his best friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia (an excellent Jesse L. Martin). His delusions go so far as to order the murder of Polixenes, put his queen on trial, and banish his newborn daughter Perdita to certain death. The result of his blind jealousy is that he loses everyone dearest to him. His son Mamillius dies of grief. He believes Hermione to be dead, convinced by her staunch defender Paulina, and his two greatest Lords Camillo and Antigonus are exiled to Bohemia in their efforts to save the innocent Polixenes and Perdita. The design (kudos to Mark Wendland for the set and Clint Ramos for the costumes) is decidedly Turkish in influence with lavish rugs, flowing robes, jewel tones, spare wooden furniture and even a couple of whirling dervishes. A classical touch is dropped in as well when the messengers appear from the Oracle of Delphi. Lighting by Ken Posner is eerie and effectively atmospheric.
In contrast. the second half of the evening takes place 16 years later in the more rustic sheep filled locale of "Bohemia." An unsophisticated bucolic land populated by shepherdesses, clowns, and rogues and host to a sheep-shearing festival attended by everyone; including Polixenes and Camillo, disguised in order that they may spy on Prince Florizel who has fallen in love with Perdita, the Shepherd's "adopted" daughter, against his father's wishes. Max Wright (Shepherd), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Clown) and Hamish Linklater (Atolycus) are welcome comic relief and along with the constant Florizel (Francois Battiste) and lovely Perdita (Heather Lind) eventually further the storyline back to Sicilia and a repentant Leontes. The visual design of Bohemia differs from Sicilia as well, with the costumes sensibly reflecting a Slavic influence: fur-trimmed skullcaps, heavy fabrics, bright colors, and—as in the first act—another classical nod as Perdita is dressed up as the goddess Flora for the sheep-shearing festival. The stage floor becomes a series of trap doors opened to expose sheep, grass, flowers, and the odd maiden. Strange—yet somehow effective. The entire production unfolds before us like a magical storybook, further enhanced by the beautiful natural surroundings of the lake, castle, and woodlands of Central Park.
Director Greif has managed to thoroughly meld these two disparate stories together by inventive means, via the unfortunate persons of Mamillius—whose toys become real and part of the action (his shadow puppet cleverly becomes the huge savage bear, for example)—and Antigonus (humanly rendered by the incomparable Gerry Bammon): "Dreams are but toys." After their deaths they take on the character of "Time," together bridging the dark past into the brighter future. "I have heard but not beleev'd the spirits o' the dead may walk again," Antigonus says, and he and Mamillius continue to be present on stage and haunt the living throughout the rest of the play.
In the end, transformation, forgiveness and redemption (all common themes in Shakespeare's later works) are in full effect.
The production pleases on many levels. The ensemble is solid; especially good are Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the fiery Paulina, Gerry Bammon as her unfortunate husband Antigonus, Hamish Linklater, as the comical and slippery con man Atolycus, Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the clownish Shepherd's son, and Byron Jennings as the honest Camillo. If there is a failing in Greif's production it comes in the pacing and tone of the first act, which feels unvaried. One would hope that as the run is only just beginning, the piece will continue to grow and the performers will discover some of the more subtle nuances of their roles. All in all, The Winter's Tale is a perfect summer destination and one certainly cannot argue with the price of admission!
Don't lie. You can care less about the play; you just wanted to see Al Pacino. It's okay to admit that; clearly, the demand for the two repertory Shakespeare in the Park productions this summer is in favor of the Pacino-starring Merchant of Venice over the Pacino-less The Winter's Tale.
If you're one of the thousands of people who waited (or will wait) overnight for the free tickets just to see Pacino in the flesh, you won't be disappointed. On the other hand, if you wanted to see a brave, bold, and daring performance as Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, chances are you will be disappointed. But then again, despite a few solid moments, director Daniel Sullivan's staging is disappointing, as well.
A variety of elements make The Merchant of Venice one of the harder plays in Shakespeare's canon to stage effectively. Tonal shifts propel the work from comedy to drama to romance and back. There's also the long-standing debate as to whether or not the play itself is anti-Semitic or if it is the characters that are. Anti-Semitic characters would make Shylock, a supporting character, a tragic hero. An anti-Semitic play would make Shylock the villain who gets his comeuppance when forced, at the end, to convert to Christianity.
Sullivan tries very hard to hammer home the idea that the play itself isn't anti-Semitic, but it's the characters that are (in fact, he's quoted in program notes as saying exactly that). Yet Pacino, who played Shylock in Michael Radford's recent film adaptation of Merchant, is at odds with this concept. Shouting and growling and snarling his lines, it's clear that his Shylock is a villain, with little remorse for anything. It's all bluster and no heart, with an amalgamation of Jewish stereotypes: a hunch, a terrible Eastern European-by-way-of-Brooklyn accent, and an unkempt beard.
The titular Venetian merchant is Antonio, played by Byron Jennings, who, according to the program's synopsis, is in love with Bassanio (Hamish Linklater), wooer to the beautiful heiress Portia (Lily Rabe). While love would certainly explain why Antonio would be willing to lose a pound of his flesh for Bassanio, as per Shylock's request if a loan isn't paid back, there don't seem to be any feelings of that ilk between the dour, far older Jennings and Linklater. And there is a distinct lack of chemistry between the latter and Rabe, who, while radiant in Jess Goldstein's costumes, delivers every line with a great deal of cynicism and a Katherine Hepburn-like inflection.
Heather Lind, a recent NYU MFA acting graduate, is completely at sea as Jessica, Shylock's daughter, with no distinct character or grip on the role, practically crying out for a dramaturg's help. The scenes between her and Lorenzo (Bill Heck), the man with whom she runs off, spurning her father and her Judaism, are painfully dull, though Heck is quite good.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson underplays Launcelot Gobbo, and the character's blatant hatred for Shylock doesn't register. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is quite good as Portia's lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, as is Jesse L. Martin as Gratiano. Scene-stealers come in the form of Nyambi Nyambi and Max Wright as Portia's suitors, the princes of Morocco and Arragon, respectively.
Overall, the second half works better than the first, and it showcases two very striking moments, both Sullivan inventions. The ending is a haunting tableau that goes against the pleasantries of the written ending. The other is Shylock's forced baptism, a dialogue-free scene where he's violently thrown into a pool of water hidden under the unattractive metallic set (designed by Mark Wendland), his yarmulke tossed aside. In one last act of defiance, Pacino picks it up and puts it back on his head. It could work, but it doesn't.
A tragic hero they try to make him. A tragic hero he could have been. But there's a lack of heart. A tragic hero he ultimately is not.