The Winter’s Tale
The Pearl Theatre Company,
555 West 42nd Street
One of the later Shakespeare plays, The Winter’s Tale, is a drama-comedy experiment that features drastic shifts in tone. In the first half of the play, the jealous king Leontes punishes his queen Hermione, who takes her suffering with very admirable stoicism. “There’s some ill planet reigns,” she coolly tells Leontes and her court when he has made his accusation of infidelity against her. “I must be patient till the heavens look with an aspect more favorable.” Leontes orders a loyal retainer named Antigonus to cast their baby daughter into the wilderness, and at this point comes the famous stage direction for Antigonus: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” This mini-Othello drama gives way to an outright farcical second half and then winds up with a strange and maybe supernatural ending, where all seems to have been forgiven.
Michael Sexton’s production of The Winter’s Tale for the Pearl Theatre seems to take place in a Brooklyn brownstone, with handsome wood paneling and a heavy dinner table for celebrations. The pregnant Hermione (Jolly Abraham) is a very stylish lady, wearing a fashionable dark red dress and very high black heels, and her manner is loose and charming, so much so that in her banter with Polixenes (Bradford Cover), we might almost wonder along with Leontes (Peter Francis James) if they are indeed fooling around behind his back. James addresses the audience directly, reading the verse with passion and vocal precision, and when he accuses Hermione of adultery with Polixenes, who was his childhood friend, Abraham goes all out in her woe without ever letting us forget that Hermione is a lady of tact and dignity, adroit at all times.
The cast wrecks the brownstone when the baby daughter is cast out into the wilderness, and they have great fun putting on fur coats and pretending to be a bear pursuing poor Antigonus (Dominic Cuskern). Everyone has even more fun in the lighthearted second half, where Steve Cuiffo presides as assorted rascally thieves and street singers and Abraham proves her versatility by switching over to a very vulgar sort of Hee-Haw girl character. But when they come to the ending, when Hermione is seemingly drawn back from the dead, the cast is unable to make this transition touching, and that might be an essential fault of the play, which has spent so much time away from Leontes that when it returns to him we have almost forgotten his dramatic agony.
What is The Winter’s Tale about? It seems to be about the stubbornness of a closed mind and also about the bleak futility of fighting against a patriarchal tyrant whose mind has been made up. As such, it is a grim play, so that all the comic capering in its second half comes as a relief but also as an evasion. This is a play that leaves a bitter taste, a play not easily embraced, but this production of it is very intelligently staged and played.