When Peter Francis James, who plays Leontes in the Pearl’s current revival of The Winter’s Tale, says the word “issue,” he pronounces it as if the first syllable rhymed with with piss instead of dish. Or, perhaps more appropriately, as if it rhymed with hiss. Thus, he virtually spits at Antigonus (Dominic Cuskern) of the child he presumes to be a bastard, “No, I’ll not rear another’s issue.” It may be a slightly affected choice, but it works, and in an otherwise helpless production, Mr. James is consistently brilliant—tall, slim, often wearing a frumpy jacket and turtleneck, he looks more like Fred Rogers than that stupor mundi Frederick the Great. But his apoplectic fits are exhilarating; and even when he is forced into silence, listening to an officer read the charges of adultery leveled against his faithful wife Hermione (Jolly Abraham), he mouths the words, not relishing their meaning so much as their validation of his anger.
Otherwise, the Pearl’s Winter’s Tale is a mess. This is a play drawn in broad strokes, one that lives and dies on its dichotomies, the central one that of the pastoral and the urban: out of these come the comedy and the tragedy, nature and modernity, shepherds and kings, flutes and kingdoms. Written late in his career, when Shakespeare apparently became bored with more traditional genre structures, The Winter’s Tale is one play decidedly split in two: the first half a rewriting of Othello, the second a veritable As You Like It. But none of this works if we don’t feel the difference, if we aren’t struck by the jarring transition from court intrigue to country idyll, and the first and most important problem here is of set design. Leontes’ palace is exquisitely rendered: fine carpet and furniture, glossy glamor shots hung in the background, and a framed poster for a Ballets Russes production of Apollon Musagète. But after intermission—after the heartbreaking condemnation of Hermione—the image of country life is lazily constructed, diluting the change that has taken place: we are still, more or less, in the palace, but with the dining room table and other accoutrements of wealth removed. Golf clubs are introduced and we hear bubbling creeks and chirping birds over the loudspeaker, but a few props and sound effects do not an arcadia make.
Director Michael Sexton supplements this overarching mistake with a series of baffling, idiotic decisions. It may be interesting to cast an adult (James Udom) as Leontes and Hermione’s young son, Mamillius, but why put him in Christmas pajamas and a bright-red superhero cape? This is not only distracting, but it is also inconsistent with the time period (1909-29) suggested by the Ballets Russes poster. Then, there is Autolycus, played gratingly by Steve Cuiffo, who offers the kind of infuriating performance we see from actors not confident enough in Shakespeare’s text. Though it might not be his fault that someone decided to write THE LONE WOLF across his guitar case (no THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS, that’s for sure), why does he mouth, “She wants me,” after first meeting Perdita (Imani Jade Powers)? This kind of unfunny audience grubbing does nothing to illuminate Shakespeare, but instead seems to say, “Hey, we all know the Bard is boring, so why not add some of my own comic stylings to the mix?” The effect, of course, is that then the Bard does become boring.
Finally, while many productions require doubling up on roles, there is a certain skill involved so that the effect is streamlined and characters are never or rarely confused. Inexplicably, then, Mr. Sexton has Mr. Udom play Perdita’s lover, Florizel, right after we have seen him as her older brother, Mamillius, evoking unnecessary associations of incest. And there is absolutely no reason to see Ms. Abraham onstage after the intermission until the last-minute reveal of Hermione’s statue—using her to fill out the cast before that point only dulls the final scene, one of Shakespeare’s most sublime.
I find it hard to believe that a company so dedicated to intelligent classic revivals could fail to severely with The Winter’s Tale. J.R. Sullivan, their former artistic director, left in the summer of 2013, and it is possible that this partially accounts for such a lax attitude towards text. (I certainly miss his personal introductions at each performance.) Perhaps, also, after years of performing together, these actors can no longer surprise each other, with their complacency becoming apparent. Whatever the reason, the Pearl needs to get its house in order, or New York might lose one of its most treasured theatrical assets.