Shakespeare's most bizarre stage direction is in The Winter's Tale: Antigonus "exits, pursued by a bear," which, offstage, mauls and devours him. Not so bizarre perhaps on a day when a Canadian woman athlete, jogging through the Quebec woods, suffers the same fate. Even so, the scene is in no need of being further queered by Brian Kulick, the director of the New York Shakespeare Festival's current Central Park revival.
As you will recall, Leontes, King of Sicilia, is heartbroken when his sudden and totally unfounded jealousy of his good wife, Hermione, causes her apparent death, the probable death of their daughter, Perdita, and the certain death from grief of their little son, Mamillius.
As Kulick would have it, Leontes collapses prone downstage left, and an attendant nonsensically tosses a bearskin over him. His unjust accusation of Hermione as having committed adultery with his childhood friend King Polixenes of Bohemia, for seven months a guest at Leontes's court, started all the trouble. Believing the newborn Perdita the fruit of Hermione's deception, he instructs the trusty Antigonus to expose the child in the wilderness. The worthy fellow travels with heavy heart all the way to Bohemia, there to abandon the babe, whereupon he exits upstage right. Instead of a bear, it is Leontes, back in Sicily, who, with measured pace, exits where Antigonus did, the bearskin dangling, head downward, from his shoulders.
If this is Kulick's idea of being pursued and eaten by a bear, we are forced to wonder how that bearskin, from faraway Sicily, managed to make a meal of the worthy courtier in Bohemia. Such absurdities infest many aspects of this production, and do not add to what is, even without them, the mature Shakespeare's arguably most contrived plot.
So, for example, court dances and country dances, in separate scenes, are staged largely in absurd slow motion. So courtiers, listening to an amazing tale, sit down on the ground across center stage in a row, the talebearer getting down similarly opposite the front man in the lineup. So all the ladies at a royal ball wear identical gowns, like chorines in a musical. Nearly identical dresses again for the shepherdesses at a spring sheep-shearing festival, very unrustic and all-white. White, too, is the attire of Perdita, queen of the event, who, as the text specifies, should wear the motley colors of the vernal season.
So, during a few scenes in Bohemia, the stage is bisected by a canal in which some actors splash about with their feet instead of, as you might wish, soaking their heads. The rogue Autolycus, posing as a peddler, arrives in elegant white evening wear, without a single item to peddle, yet all crowd around him to buy his goods. Clearly, one does not judge these late Shakespearean romances as a pedantic stickler for realism. But where romantic make-believe is the intent, the production should help us believe, not willfully court disbelief.
Time is an important figure in the story, but instead of Old Father Time, we are given a young fussbudget in a homburg, continually consulting his pocket watch, and bereft of his best lines. Kulick's chief folly, however, is the staging of the play's climactic and incontestable masterstroke. The staunch lady-in-waiting Paulina leads the court through her picture gallery, arriving finally at the pièce de résistance, the niche with the supposed statue of Hermione. The text calls for a curtain to be drawn, revealing with fine theatricality the living Hermione posing as her statue. Instead, Kulick gives us an empty stage with Hermione atop a pedestal at its center: no buildup, no suspense, no surprise.
George C. Wolfe's park productions aim, first, at maximum horseplay to tickle the masses. Second, at the casting of all possible and impossible minority actors; but Shakespeare's high-flown poetic language is sometimes delivered in improbable accents, at the expense of the play. Still, if Leontes, Hermione, and daughter Perdita are all black, why make the other sibling, Mamillius, chalk-white and golden-blond? This is seriously misleading, implying that Hermione has indeed produced this child out of wedlock, and may have done so again with Perdita. Third, it is assumed that unsophisticated park audiences are perfect guinea pigs for unwarranted directorial hocus-pocus. Fourth, now that Wolfe has blown millions on two unsuccessful Broadway musicals, the kitty may be depleted, and mountings may have to be cheap. None of this bodes well.
Riccardo Hernández is capable of better set design than panels of two great Renaissance paintings (by Botticelli and Mantegna) blown up, cut in half, mounted on casters, and their backs painted red. Shuffled to and fro, they are used down front as the curtain, and elsewhere as all sorts of palace or chamber walls. But why Renaissance, when the play is set in antiquity, and the costumes are more or less modern? Designed by Anita Yavich, they are both pedestrian and misguided, the uniform oversize tabby-cat bow ties for all the courtiers being just one example.
For the country scenes, Hernández comes up with symmetrical topiary cubes mounted on metal rods, each with a golden ball at its foot, making the innocent pastoral milieu even more showily unnatural than the Sicilian court. Mark Bennett's music shuttles uneasily between Stockhausen and Broadway musicalese, both inapposite. Naomi Goldberg's choreography is perfunctory, but Kenneth Posner at least projects some gaily colored lights on a downward-curling rear wall on which the cast's most athletic member, Michael Stuhlbarg, performs as a human fly.
The acting is ragged. Keith David, an imposing figure, does well by Leontes's rant but not by his regality, racked psyche, or repentance. Graham Winton's Polixenes, like Henry Stram's faithful courtier Camillo, is consistently passable, but never inspired. Aunjanue Ellis has neither the nobility nor the pathos of Hermione, still less the queenly utterance. As Perdita, so beautiful as to turn all male heads, and variously compared to a queen and a goddess, Erica N. Tazel egregiously lacks the necessary looks, accent, and talent. Jonathan Hadary minces in every part he undertakes, his Antigonus no exception. Bill Buell is blatant as the Old Shepherd; Francis Jue, puny as the First Lord.
Jesse Pennington makes a valiant stab at Prince Florizel, and Emma Bowers shows some spirit as Emilia and Mopsa. But the only significant contributions are from Randy Danson as a warm and spunky Paulina; Michael Stuhlbarg, who would be fine as the Young Shepherd had he not been goaded into excessive vaudeville clowning; and Bronson Pinchot, as an amusing Autolycus. But he is an actor with an unruly imagination the director unhappily allows to run riot.