A Chilly Romance

Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale has always presented directors with difficulties, notably that Leontes, the Sicilian king who dominates the first half, becomes insanely jealous of the friendship of his pregnant queen, Hermione, and his best friend, Polixenes, king of Bohemia, some nine months after Polixenes has arrived for a visit. Indeed, on the eve of Polixenes’ departure, Leontes determines to kill his friend, who escapes. When Hermione delivers, Leontes orders the death of the newborn. He then learns of her innocence just as her death is reported. 

Michael Sexton’s production for the Pearl Theatre Company is stuffed with ideas, to mixed effect. In a first scene whose meta-theatricality is echoed later, the actors saunter on and tacitly acknowledge the audience before getting down to toasts, card tricks, and pouring Scotch. In short order, Peter Francis James’s well-spoken Leontes begins to voice his suspicions of the infidelity of Hermione (Jolly Abraham). James stands stiffly with his hands in his pockets, seemingly tight with emotion. If James cannot quite make Leontes’ jealousy credible, he suggests one of those people who snap suddenly and inexplicably kill their families. He tries to enlist his chief counselor, Camillo (an authoritative Tom Nelis), to poison Polixenes (Bradford Cover), but Camillo warns Polixenes and joins him in his escape.

Sexton has made judicious cuts, and some of his ideas are nifty. How does one approach Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, Exit, pursued by a bear? It occurs when the courtier Antigonus (Dominic Cuskern) takes Hermione’s infant to the woods to dispose of it. Sexton’s solution is to have a visible attack and a stylish feeding frenzy. As one actor holds up a mounted bear’s head, several other actors, clad in fur coats, move as in a choreographed Noh drama and disembowel Antigonus (red cloths fly into the air).

Still, there's a disconcerting tricksiness to everything. Why does Bradley King (with the director’s blessing, surely) suddenly illuminate the actors as if they were in a 19th-century melodrama? Or a 1940s film noir? When the Shepherd enters, the lights go up, and his scene starts from the audience for no apparent reason. 

There is also little sense of place. The action begins in a dining room, with formal service and a breakfront displaying dishes on one wall, a poster for a Ballets Russes production on another, and an upright piano against the wall of the inner stage. Designed beautifully by Brett J. Banakis, it nevertheless seems to be a royal hunting lodge rather than a full-time palace. That’s not impossible, but the uncertainty of locale continues throughout. Upended furniture is meant to convey a wilderness where Antigonus leaves the infant and a Shepherd finds her. This requires the Shepherd’s son, called simply Clown (a terrific Adam Green), to enter through the fireplace, which must now assume the role of a hole in the underbrush. The furniture cleared, the scene becomes a more effective grange hall for a potluck in rustic Bohemia. 

But a closet door serves as an antechamber to the court, a prison cell, an actual closet, and later a bizarre exit for the comic rascal Autolycus (Steve Cuiffo). At times one longs for an oral description of the setting akin to those supplied by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “In this same interlude it doth befall/That I, one Snout by name, present a wall/And such a wall as I would have you think/That had in it a crannied hole or chink…”

It has often been difficult to spark interest in the wooing of the grown Perdita (Imani Jade Powers) by Polixenes’ son Florizel (James Udom), and the actors here don’t overcome the problem. But Rachel Botchan as Hermione's lady-in-waiting Paulina, who becomes the conscience of the reformed Leontes, is excellent.

The final scene, in which Hermione’s statue comes to life and is reunited with a repentant Leontes, is written to produce sniffles at a minimum. Here, Hermione appears without "statue" makeup, as if she's just a woman standing still. There's no magic, no wonder or warmth, and the scene is played so lethargically, to a lightly plunked guitar, that the climax dwindles away. It’s a shame that a production that often wrestles interestingly with this tragicomedy should end so weakly.

Evening performances of The Winter's Tale are 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays through March 15. Tickets may be purchased by visiting pearltheatre.org or calling (212) 563-9261.

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