The Winter’s Tale Review: The Royal Shakespeare Company in New York
The replica of the Stratford-upon-Avon theater that the Royal Shakespeare Company has built inside the Park Avenue Armory looks from the outside like the bottom half of a rocket ship, which is apt for “The Winter’s Tale,” a play that seems to take us somewhere far from Earth.
As the play begins, Leontes, the king of Sicilia, has a lovely wife, a terrific best friend, and a bright and lively son, with a daughter on the way. In short order, the king more or less destroys them all, because of a suspicion that his pregnant wife has committed adultery with his best friend, an accusation that has no basis in reality.
Suddenly it is 16 years later, and the tragedy in a royal court of the first half of the play is transformed for the second half into a comedy in a pastoral setting. By the end of “The Winter’s Tale,” love is restored, the dead come magically back to life, all is implausibly set right.
Of the five Shakespeare plays that the Royal Shakespeare Company is putting on in repertory this summer in New York, “The Winter’s Tale” is the least known and most infrequently produced — one of the Bard’s “problem plays,” an odd mix of tragedy and comedy. The RSC manages to keep our attention off the problems — albeit only temporarily — during some arresting stagecraft and design, and one riveting performance.
Designer Jon Bausor brings us from the Sicilia of the first half to the Bohemia of the second through a brilliant literal deconstruction – the Edwardian-era chandelier of the King of Sicilia’s dining room crashes to the ground, the ceiling-high bookcases are thunderously emptied of their contents, the books and papers flying about. The result is a ruin but also a wondrous setting outdoors, made all the more delightful soon after with the introduction of the bigger than life-size bear (an imposing puppet) and later with a dance populated by country people dressed like book monsters – their costumes consist almost entirely of pages from a book, but each also equipped with huge phalluses.
The riveting performance is by Kelly Hunter in the role of Queen Hermione, Leontes’ unjustly accused wife. Brought to the king after her imprisonment, and before her execution, she wears the same beautiful white dress that made her appear so alluring, but it is now soiled, her feet are muddy, and she herself is shocked, outraged, mournful, pitiable and pitying.
Greg Hicks has the far less sympathetic role of King Leontes, which he plays with elegant diction and kingly dignity, his face visited with brief glimmers of the madness that is the only explanation for his cruelty.
The RSC guide explains that the replica of their 975-seat theater weighs 150 tons, that the scenery and costumes for the shows weigh 85 tons. It is difficult to determine with such precision how weighty its production of “The Winter’s Tale,” which clocks in at three hours. But the burden of sitting through Shakespeare’s odd and oddly bifurcated tale is only partially lightened by this production’s well-crafted moments.
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The Winter’s Tale
a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company co-presented by the Lincoln Theater Festival and Park Avenue Armory in association with the Ohio State University
Director David Farr
Designer Jon Bausor
Lighting Designer Jon Clark
Music Keith Clouston
Sound Martin Slavin
Choreographer Arthur Pita
Director of Puppetry Steve Tiplady
Aerial Consultant Lyndall Merry
“The Winter’s Tale” is set to close August 14th.
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