The Winter's Tale

The Brief Sun Flames the Ice

The set, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, is extraordinary.  Snow falls throughout, first in large heaps and then intermittently, its color reflected in the large white arches and pale furniture; the actors, dwarfed by their monochromatic surroundings, bring a little relief with their colorful costumes.  But the main effect—a sheet of white peppered with spots of humanity—put me in mind of Gloucester in Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport.”

Much else, too, is good about Arin Arbus’ Winter’s Tale.  The acting is consistent: there isn’t a bad one in the bunch.  The language is spoken fluently, as if those speaking it actually know what it means—sadly not a given in contemporary Shakespeare productions.  Even Eli Rayman, the child playing Mamillius, manages his part with skill, and young performers, notable for their tendency to pierce the auditorium with a delivery the reeks of memorization without reflection, can sink many a well-staged scene.

And yet, I left this production feeling nothing.  The Winter’s Tale, which has seen a resurgence in popularity recently, is one of Shakespeare’s trickier texts, a diptych of tragedy and comedy, of city and pastoral, of youth and old age.  Yet with all these pieces, each of which could motivate Ms. Arbus’ interest, there is a lack of urgency, really of direction to all of this.

The production notes suggest metamorphosis was a central concern, but none of this is borne out in performance.  When Ms. Arbus mounted The Taming of the Shrew, for example, her position on the material was quite clear: Kate and Petruchio, despite appearances, are in fact the happiest of Shakespearean couples, an angle both justified by the text and rewarded by her inventive staging.  Here, what is the point?  To gather together an admittedly talented cast to recite The Winter’s Tale—and that is pretty much it.  I had no sense of her relationship to the play, and as a result much of the action falls flat.  Ultimately, when Leontes (Anatol Yusef) gasps, “She’s warm”—perhaps the most sublime line in the canon—I myself felt rather frigid.

The Winter’s Tale runs through April 15th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.  262 Ashland Place  Brooklyn, NY.  2 hours 50 minutes.  One intermission.

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