The first review of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale totally ignored the bear. But perhaps “review” is glorifying London astrologer Simon Forman’s notes about his visit to the Globe on May 15, 1611. Forman briefly recaps the plot about a jealous monarch, a blameless queen, and a banished infant — but includes no record of the beast that devours unfortunate lord Antigonus after he has deposited the babe on the shores of Bohemia. Arin Arbus remembers. In fact, her latest Shakespeare staging for Theatre for a New Audience opens with an actor in ursine drag bopping around the stage as snow falls. Moments later, prince Mamillius enters clutching a teddy bear. “Aha,” you think: “It’s all about the bear.” Sadly, that’s not the case.
To be sure, this play needs directorial frame and spin. Late in his career, Shakespeare was making like Polonius: jumbling tragedy, comedy, pastoral, history, and fairy tale to create genre-surfing goulashes now called “romances.” The Winter’s Tale begins as a mini-tragedy of marital horror, moves into country yuks, and ends with an Elizabethan what-the-fardel: the statue of a dead wife coming to life before her grieving husband. For any director, the piece is a tonal minefield, but, when done right, it’s also a surprisingly affecting fable about time, healing, and forgiveness.
Sicilian king Leontes (Anatol Yusef) is enjoying an extended visit from childhood friend Polixenes (Dion Mucciacito), head of Bohemia. In the opening scene, out of nowhere, Leontes becomes irrationally and irrevocably convinced that his spirited wife, Hermione (Kelley Curran), has been having an affair with Polixenes. Loyal courtiers and lords cannot shake their boss’s anguished, misogynistic belief that’s he’s been cuckolded. The tragic spawn of Leontes’s paranoia leads to the public humiliation of Hermione in court, the death of their boy Mamillius, and the exile of their newborn daughter. Too late, the crazed tyrant comes to his senses, only to realize the horror he’s unleashed.
The scene shifts to Bohemia, with the bear, the helpless babe, and comic relief. That comes in the form of a shepherd (John Keating) and his dim-witted but kindly son (Ed Malone), who find the abandoned baby and together raise her as their own. When next we meet the aptly named Perdita (Nicole Rodenburg), the lass has attracted the eye of Florizel (Eddie Ray Jackson), truant son of the Bohemian king.
Although Tale is produced often enough that you may know what follows, I’ll spoil no more. Trouble is, I’ve seen enough versions to come away from this one unsatisfied. Leontes is a tricky role; before we get to know him or the nature of his marriage, he’s foaming at the mouth like a two-headed Othello-Iago. Granted, to expect nuanced, 21st-century psychological realism from Shakespeare can be a fool’s errand, however deeply he plumbed human nature. Here, it falls to an actor of tremendous gifts to give coherence to the king’s insane jealousy and subsequent repentance. The awesome Simon Russell Beale convinced me in 2009 when the Bridge Project brought its heartbreaking, candlelit version to BAM. He injected notes of self-loathing and intense loneliness that justified the character’s whipsaw neuroses.
Alas, Anatol Yusef, compact and bullet-headed, only goes so far. He’s grim, determined, macho, and cruel, but the performance is all surface and moderately smooth verse-speaking. It’s not only Yusef who comes up short. Arbus gets clear and steady work from an ensemble of seasoned actors — Mahira Kakkar, as Hermione’s loyal lady-in-waiting, Paulina, is a diligent study in contained rage — but the cumulative effect is dignified but uninspired. The surprising exceptions are the comic roles. Whereas most Shakespearean clowns leave one wondering just how drunk his audiences were, the laughs here are organic and skillfully earned. Arnie Burton’s Autolycus is a flamboyant con artist, a campy scamp who works the crowd as deftly as he pickpockets townsfolk. And I couldn’t get enough of Keating and Malone, a pair of lanky Celtic loons who manage to be both thoroughly moronic and deeply lovable at the same time. Lads: Mr. Godot is calling.
If Arbus and set designer Riccardo Hernandez substitute decorous austerity for messy human complexity (white walls; floor covered in snowflakes and, later, verdant leaves), the gracefully staged scene with Hermione’s statue resonates. It is, after all, the weirdest ending Shakespeare wrote. One might wish for cuts or a brisker pace, but in the end, tears mingle with laughter. Only one thing surprised me by final bow: no dancing bear. Sleeping out the winter, maybe?