Review: ‘The Winter’s Tale’ Continues The Public Theater’s Legacy By Bringing Shakespeare To All
By Diana Mott, Contributing Writer, December 1, 2017
The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit lies at the heart of Joe Papp’s vision which began almost 60 years ago: to provide free Shakespeare to everyone. By paring down sets and cast, The Winter’s Tale has settled into the LuEster Theater at The Public after performances in homeless shelters, prisons, detention centers, libraries, and community centers throughout the metropolitan area. One can only imagine the singular pleasure of seeing a play for the first time. This production, deftly directed by Lee Sunday Evans, is a good introduction to theater in general, and Shakespeare in particular.
The Winter’s Tale is a late play of Shakespeare, one of his four romantic plays with big themes about youth and age, forgiveness and reconciliation, and nature and renewal. The play begins with the irrational jealousy of a king. Leontes of Sicilia (a fine Justin Cunningham), suspects his boyhood friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, (Nicholas Hoge) who has been visiting for nine months, of having an affair with his wife Hermione (a very regal Stacey Yen). No coincidence in the length of Polixenes’s stay, as Hermione is about to give birth to their second child. Leontes orders his trusted advisor Camillo (Sathya Sridharan) to poison Polixenes and get rid of the baby after it is born, a daughter Leontes believes is not his. A horrified Camillo warns Polixenes and leaves for Bohemia with him that very night for fear of their lives.
Meanwhile, Leontes submits Hermione to a public trial though he agrees to abide by the Oracle of Apollo. Hermione is declared innocent by the Oracle but seemingly dies of heartbreak anyway, along with their young son (a lovely puppet designed by James Ortiz and handled my Mr. Myers). Their newborn daughter is left on the deserted coast of Bohemia by Antigonus, who is attacked and eaten by a bear for his troubles.
The bear mauling of Antigonus ends the dark and evil business of the court of Sicilia and transitions the play to the simplicity and innocence of the shepherds. A simple-minded shepherd’s son witnesses the death of Antigonus at the same time Old Shepherd discovers the abandoned baby. “Now bless thyself. Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn,” says Old Shepherd, extolling the power of nature to renew and restore good fortune.
The infant grows into a comely maiden, Perdita, (Ayana Workman) who attracts the attention of Prince Florizel (Chris Meyers), Polixenes’s son, creating complications that will be resolved when everyone returns to Sicilia, where misunderstandings are corrected, and forgiveness and reconciliation inevitably follow.
In spite of the language, the action of the play is easy to follow and the performances are solid. Scenes are introduced with snippets of song composed by Heather Christian and sung a capella by the cast, many of whom are playing more than one role. Pauline (Patrena Murray), Hermione’s steadfast friend and wife of poor Antigonus, also plays Time, a comical allegorical figure who announces that sixteen years have passed, thereby moving the story forward without ado. Antigonus, played by the wonderfully funny Christopher Ryan Grant, frantically exits the stage being chased by a bear (one actor with a head and four actors as paws) at the end of Act III and reenters a mere moment later, hilariously come to life again as the Old Shepherd. Thus, even the actors are reborn.
In the role of the doltish shepherd’s son, is a very funny Nina Grollman. Bohemia’s shepherds are southern hillbillies in this production, an odd choice, but not particularly off-putting since kings are wearing suits and ties.
The gravity and insanity of the first half of The Winter’s Tale can seem out of balance with the levity of the second half. But then, at the end of the play, the ultimate renewal takes place in the form of a resurrection that makes all that can be made right again. With time, winter always turns to spring.
The Winter’s Tale presented by The Public’s Mobile Unit at the LuEster Theater / The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, through December 17. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans; scenic design by Mariana Sanchez; costume design by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene; puppet design by James Ortez; music composed by Heather Christian. Cast: Justin Cunningham, Christopher Ryan Grant, Nina Grollman, Nicholas Hoge, Patrena Murray, Chris Myers, Sathya Sridharan, Ayana Workman, and Stacey Yen.
Cover: (l. to r.) Stacey Yen, Chris Myers, and Nina Grollman in The Public’s Mobile Unit production of ‘The Winter’s Tale;’ photo: Carol Rosegg.