Unadulterated Pleasure

The American Globe Theatre’s presentation of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is as fine a rendering of this gorgeous play as any I have seen. That’s no mean feat for a Shakespearean company that likely operates on a fraction of the budget of more established ones. Yet, now in its 19th season, the American Globe Theatre has managed to become Times Square’s longest running Off-Off Broadway theater. The Winter’s Tale is, above all, the story of one who regretfully makes catastrophic decisions, improbably receives a second chance, and then smartly runs with it. King Leontes of Sicilia, hosting for a long period his boyhood friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, mistakenly believes that his beloved queen, Hermione, and Polixenes are having an adulterous affair. The delusion sets in motion a chain of events that lead to the estrangement of Polixenes, the imprisonment of Hermione, the death of Leontes’ only son-heir, and the intended murder of his baby girl, Perdita, who Leontes erroneously believes to be the bastard daughter of Polixenes.

Against the better counsel of everyone in his court, Leontes forges ahead, destroys his life and nearly ruins his kingdom. Richard Fay shines as a chastened Leontes finally recognizing the error of his ways; he literally grovels in agony as Paulina, Hermione’s senior lady, rubs salt into his wounds. The powerful final scene tugs at the heart strings appropriately yet never descends into sappiness.

Director John Basil remains for the most part entirely true to the original text, slightly embellishing it for the better on occasion and introducing dances and songs in several scenes. As Leontes, the confident Fay utterly commands his lines: fearsome in one scene, bitter in the next, child-like and confused in another. His descriptions to his counsel, Camillo, of Hermione’s imagined transgressions are animated and comical; at one point he thrusts his nose at Camillo’s to illustrate adulterous behavior he claims to have witnessed. Yet, never do we doubt his tight rein over those who, as much as they suspect their king’s beliefs, must perform his insane bidding on pain of death.

Jim Parks’ period costuming is conservative but clever. He lends Leontes and his lords a bit of a hip flair while still placing them firmly within the time of the play. Kevin Lee Allen’s imaginative set design fully utilizes a modest space: two spiral stairways on either side of the stage lend symmetry and a bit of grandeur to the black box, while the vertical rise offers Leontes the ability to look down on his minions while making forceful, if misguided, pronouncements that will forever alter their lives. Alisa Claire’s choreography of peasant dances is charming, and Mark Hankla’s lighting, particularly when it isolates Leontes, is frequently inspired.

My quibbles with the direction are minor. Christina Shipp as the grown-up Perdita didn’t quite convey the inherent majesty that the natural born daughter of royalty is said to possess, and Paulina, played strongly by Diedra Da Silva, dipped momentarily into farce at a point of the play that demands restraint. Jefferson Slinkard’s employment of a feigned Mexican/Italian/something else accent when he, as a disguised Polixenes, confronts his disaffected son, Florizel, needs work. I detected a slight flagging of energy during the last quarter of the play which happily picked up by the final scenes.

Standouts among the cast are Fay as Leontes, Elizabeth Keefe as Hermione, whose trial speech elicits the pity her plight deserves, Geoffrey Barnes as the simple yet humorous son of a shepherd, and a remarkably agile and appropriately hammy Mat Sanders as the ne’er do well, Autolycus.

The best Shakespeare answers ambiguous questions occasionally posed by the text and Mr. Basil is unafraid to engage those questions. While prior familiarity with the play always helps, do not feel intimidated by unadulterated (pardon the pun) Shakespeare. You will get it, and the American Globe Theatre’s rendition of this great play will pleasantly surprise even the most bard shy. This is currently the best theater bargain in Times Square.

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