What Bears Pursuing

Only a small part of these complex feelings gets onto the Delacorte stage. Keith David, a powerful and passionately well-spoken presence, gives the exterior of Leontes great dignity, but the king's self-tormenting inner man is only discernible from the text. Kulick has staged Aunjanue Ellis, his Hermione, to stay in fixed positions and attack her speeches simply and quietly, but her instinct for empty, conventional theatricality keeps taking over; she's most successful as the statue. Graham Winton is an amiable, empty Polixenes, emptily sociable in Sicilia and emptily angry at home. It's left to Henry Stram's Camillo and Randy Danson's Paulina to uphold the integrity of the Sicilian court. The way Danson works up her last tirade to Leontes (helped by one of Kulick's most elegantly stark tableaux), pushing it just to the edge of comedy, mixing in just the necessary hint of deceit, is a model of such things. It even helps Hadary's Jackie Mason-ish performance seem endearing.

Matters are similarly cool and distant in Bohemia, where only Bill Buell's roistering Old Shepherd seems fully alive. Jesse Pennington's Florizel and Erica N. Tazel's Perdita make a very pretty illustration from a Victorian children's book, school of Walter Crane, and nobody really wants Florizel and Perdita to do more. I like Michael Stuhlbarg better as the Clown than I generally do in the aristocratic realm, but even as this stammerer, his performance, though well wrought, seems artificial; you can see him thinking where to put the next stammer. He gets stylish and likable, though not highly energized, help from Bronson Pinchot's Autolycus, a smooth and laid-back con man rather than the usual frenetic kind. Even here, though, Kulick's Bohemia is too genteel, too idyllic (and often too unspecific in its staging) to offer much contrast with Leontes's closed-off court. The openness of nature, which arbitrarily sends sunny days or storms at sea, should make a running implied contrast with human falsity.

Bronson Pinchot and Bill Buell in The Winter's Tale: shepherding people into abstraction
photo: Michal Daniel
Bronson Pinchot and Bill Buell in The Winter's Tale: shepherding people into abstraction


The Winter's Tale
By William Shakespeare
Delacorte Theatre
Central Park 212-539-8750

The latter, in the play's closing irony, can only find its way back to natural truth through ever more complex artificiality—a point that's blurred when nature and court, indoor and outdoor, are depicted with equal artifice. Maybe this isn't entirely Kulick's fault: It's worth noting that he's been praised for the aspect of his staging that makes the least common sense—Leontes and Hermione, played by artists of color, have a blond, fair-skinned Mamilius, about whose legitimacy the king conveys no doubts. This is, frankly, absurd; and Shakespeare was not an Absurdist. Similarly, the production insists on retaining, in lines addressed to actors of color, the word "white," as in "your white hand." Again, silly—and demeaning to the person addressed. The underlying implication is that the text is an abstract entity, out there on its own, irrelevant to anything the actors may do. And that assumption, I may say, is the reason most Americans think they hate Shakespeare—who, given his theatrical good sense and range of sympathies, would have been the first to admire a gifted artist of color and change the lines to fit. People who don't see this don't know what Shakespeare is about, no matter how carefully they've scrutinized the textual notes or read up on the latest critical theories. Shakespeare didn't write texts for scholarly study, but plays for people. Which is why he can never be left to the academics. Just let the actors live the words, and not make a fetish of how remote they are from us, and Shakespeare wins every time. His work always sounds better than it sounds, if you know what I mean.

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