“Wagner’s music,” Mark Twain reassured Americans, “is not as bad as it sounds.” And if you enjoy playing the clown, as Twain did, you might say something similarly reassuring—and similarly disquieting in its reassurance—about Shakespeare. His word-music, too, though dreaded by all Americans, and I suspect by most Brits, makes much more sense when you hear it than when you hear about it. There are days when I think the only hope for Shakespeare in America is to remove him entirely from the high school and college curriculum: That way children, primed by growing up on a diet of hiphop and talk radio, would get an even chance to discover how vivid the old obscure words are when you hear them in action, spoken with understanding, instead of laboring over them in a classroom while bent under the twin burdens of cultural piety and critical pedantry. Take those away, and the public will quickly discover that Shakespeare is, in fact, exactly as good as he sounds.
Brian Kulick’s Park staging of The Winter’s Tale is, in this respect, a tolerably good beginning. It pays the public the compliment of not condescending and leaning down to explain the play, but instead inviting them up, to view something dignified, somber, and spare. That the vision they find, on arriving at this austere upper level, is a private and sometimes quirkily obscure one, may not be such a good thing, but won’t surprise any hardened Shakespeare-goer. For two centuries, the theater’s approach to Shakespeare has been a catch-22 routine of simultaneous reverence and depredation, with the words worshipped as Sacred Text, and the staging stretched to include any amount of directorial or actorish self-indulgence.
I don’t mean to lay all this on Kulick, who is very far from being the worst example. I just wince a little whenever I get more proof of Shaw’s thesis; artists perpetrate these absurdities, he wrote, “as a tribute to Shakespeare’s greatness, which, being uncommon, ought not to be interpreted according to the dictates of common sense.” There you have the problem, which even Shaw’s colleague Granville Barker couldn’t cure, in a nutshell. We have it today as surely as the Victorians had it when Augustin Daly filled the space between the last two acts of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the “panoramic passage of Theseus’s barge to Athens.” Kulick’s most distressing move is to spoil, apparently for the sake of some abstruse theorizing, the most famous and enjoyable stage direction in Shakespeare. Yes, this is the production in which “Exit, pursued by a bear” leaves most of the audience blankly puzzled. How could it? Because Kulick somehow equates the bear with Leontes, so Leontes has to fall asleep on the floor in Sicilia, get a bear rug draped over him during the scene change, and wake up to stumble off half wrapped in it, while Jonathan Hadary’s Antigonus makes some strange frozen gestures to convey acceptance of a hideous fate. I bet the panoramic passage was more fun.
Not that Kulick’s production lacks visual appeal. Riccardo Hernandez’s bold, richly monochrome set signals the show’s grave tone: Sicilia is an eternal evening gala, all red carpet and gilt chairs; Anita Yavich’s costumes make clear that formal wear is required at all times, black frock coats for the men, lush-colored evening gowns and long gloves for the women. Changes of scene are made with gilt-framed partitions displaying blown-up details from Renaissance painting. Both the elegance and the period-jumping fit this fantasy island, where men worship Apollo, but the queen’s statue is by Giulio Romano, in whose time Apollo worship might have gotten you burned at the stake. Bohemia, in contrast, is all a gauzy white idyll, with the stage stripped of its crimson draperies and its rustic inhabitants turned into hushed Pre-Raphaelite ringers, who dance a stately galliard to Mark Bennett’s pleasantly solemn music, equal parts Steve Reich and Antonin Reicha.
Within this lovely, if slightly stiff-limbed, context, Kulick moves his company through the story proficiently and for the most part intelligently. He has a few mannerist tricks that get on my aesthetic nerves, like having characters, in the middle of a scene, go off and reenter while the scenic elements shift, as if he thinks Shakespeare should have written more tracking shots; occasionally, too, his blocking aims for an intimacy that shuts out the audience and rebukes the open stage, as when Leontes sits with his back to us and Camillo kneels upstage of him. But the main objection is that the production lives at a fixed distance from the play as well as from us, that it seems to be trying, especially in Bohemia, to convert the play to its vision, rather than using its vision to form a bond between the play and us. Certainly anyone who didn’t know The Winter’s Tale would be able to follow its story as told here (apart from the bear); just as certainly, any such innocent would come away very puzzled regarding Shakespeare’s view of the differences—external but still emphatic—between shepherds and kings.
The most problematic result of Kulick’s approach is that it only intermittently taps into the characters’ inner life. Actors who normally work from the center find no obstacles to doing so here; but Kulick’s elaborate formalism doesn’t impel those whose work is superficial to find any deeper connection. Since The Winter’s Tale is about, among other things, humans’ need to trust those they love, a production in which the soul’s agony isn’t poured out and tested before your eyes will tend to seem a little tepid. Time, chance, and nature—unpredictable and often destructive forces—cause enough havoc in our lives without help from our own mistrustful impulses: People who don’t learn early to rise above suspicion have a long, miserable road ahead of them. That’s the story of Leontes, echoed topsy-turvily in the stories of both Florizel and Autolycus.
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.
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.