A bunch of us did a quintessential summer in New York thing Saturday. We waited on line in Central Park for free tickets for Shakespeare in the Park. There are two shows to see. One of them is the line. The cast: New Yorkers - interested in what's going on in their city, always the expert on it, not too nosy, generally respectful of the rules (you have to be in a city of 8 million people). There were Risk players, people playing guitar quietly to themselves, nappers, those studying up for the play, those who brought their New York Times (half of it is printed Saturday), their laptops, library book readers, bookstore book readers, kindle readers, those who brought their picnic (us - whole wheat french bread with nutella, and fruit), and those who called the local deli which actually delivers to the line. They sat on benches, lay on blankets, reclined in beach chairs, and snoozed on inflatable mattresses. There were the line monitors employed by the theatre, the tourists capturing the line on their video cameras, the saxophonist playing Mozart and Cole Porter, and the conspiracy theorist parading up and down the line playing for our sympathy. Then, of course, there was also The Winters Tale by William Shakespeare.
I would call The Winter's Tale Shakespeare's redemptive comedy. It offers one of the most complex plot of any of his plays, probably his strongest female character (Paulina), and it could perhaps be thought a more "modern" play in that the dramatic situation and character trump the beauty of poetry. While I could take a bath in the language of Shakespeare's Richard II or Antony and Cleopatra, one cannot get away with just 'speaking the speech' in this play. In it Leontes, a king, is visited by his childhood friend Polixenes. He becomes rabidly suspicious that his queen Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes and eventually condemns her to death and banishes her newborn child. The child is taken away by a trusted servant and grows up the daughter of a peasant in Polixenes's country named Perdita. She eventually falls in love with Florizel, the son of Polixenes. Meanwhile, Leontes becomes a penitent and Paulina, unbeknownst to any soul, has kept Hermione alive. 16 years pass and this time it is Polixenes who becomes angry when he discovers his son wishes to marry a peasant. So the former advisor to Leontes brings the couple back to Leontes's country where the peasant is revealed as Leontes daughter, Paulina brings Hermione back to life, and the two kings are reunited in friendship, the two children marry. The end.
I find this tale of unrestrained impulse turning to regret one of Shakespeare's deepest and most touching. The plays success relies on the arc of Leontes's feelings being deeply and believably invested by the human being that plays him and in this director Michael Greif was unlucky with the casting of Ruben Santiago-Hudson who strutted about with his heart empty of anything that Shakespeare asks for, apparently unaware that he was asked to do more than speak the words loudly and clearly with some variation in inflection. The fact the playing space was well designed, making good use of the Delacorte theatre's outdoor setting, that Marianne Jean-Baptiste gave a strong performance as Paulina, that Perdita was played with intelligence and vulnerability by Heather Lind, and that Tom Kitt composed a lovely score, played live didn't matter in the end because Leonte's grief is the spine of this play. The one turn that saved the evening for me were the antics of Hamish Linklater as the clown Autolycus. He brought the text to life with colloquial ease, was responsive in the moment to what is going on around him, and filled himself with the circumstances of his character, ridiculous as those are. Usually the stagebusiness of Autolycus who is not only a rustic clown but also a conman, pickpocketing everyone around him, takes up so much energy that I don't know who the man actually is. Not in this case. Linklater seems born to the stage. His performance exuded joy. I'm looking forward to seeing him play Bassanio to Al Pacino's Shylock when the other play of this summer's season, The Merchant of Venice, transfers to Broadway later this season.