“Baby, It's Cool Inside”
It’s already remarkable that the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit annually brings one of the Bard’s plays to a wide variety of conventionally non-theatergoing New York City audiences, free-of-charge, and in remarkably accessible, imaginatively conceived, socially relevant, bare-bone stagings; even more remarkable is that it does so with such consistent assurance.
Justin Cunningham, Nicholas Hoge. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The tradition continues with The Winter’s Tale, lovingly staged by Lee Sunday Evans in a stripped-down, hour-and-40-minute production that recently played at community centers, shelters, libraries, social service organizations, prisons all over town.
The Winter’s Tale is considered by some a “problem play” because of the shift in tone between the darkly serious orientation of its first three acts and the romantic comedy tone of its last two; scholars are not even sure which Shakespearean category to place it in. Regardless, audiences, young and old, will have no problem appreciating this thoroughly enjoyable, excellently spoken revival, from which numerous characters, like Autolycus, Mopsa, and Dorcas, have been excised with little damage to the narrative.
Ten vibrant actors, around half of them doubling, wearing straightforward, modern-dress designed by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, perform in an unadorned, intimate, theatre-in-the-round space. Its only scenic units are four, portable, white pillars and a couple of small, movable wood and metal pieces that serve as platforms and seats. Mariana Sanchez is credited for the simple look but no one gets credit for the unvarying white lights that shine on both actors and audience, linking them as partners sharing the same experience.
A brief but excellent speech by Stephanie Ybarra, the Public’s director of special artistic projects, introduces the performance. Like a good high school teacher, she asks the audience to raise its hands in response to several questions pertinent to the play’s themes. To paraphrase a couple: who has ever been absolutely sure of something? Who has ever admitted being wrong when they made a mistake?
Then, the play begins with a capella singing coming from the actors standing behind the seats after which we’re quickly immersed in Shakespeare’s fanciful tale: Leontes (Justin Cunningham), King of Sicilia, for no good reason, is suddenly overwhelmed with jealousy of his good friend, the visiting King of Bohemia, Polixenes (Nicholas Hoge, resembling a young Sam Shepard), whom he suspects of having impregnated Leontes’ wife, Hermione (Stacey Yen).
Although the courtier Camillo (Sathya Sridharan) saves Polixenes, by fleeing with him to Bohemia, tragedy strikes when Leontes and Hermione’s son, Mamillius (played by a bunraku-like puppet and voiced by Chris Myers), dies, followed by Hermione, after which her newborn daughter is abandoned on the coast of Bohemia.
The latter is accomplished by the husband of noblewoman Paulina (Patrena Murray), Antigonus (Christopher Ryan Grant), who is soon chased and eaten by a bear (thus the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear”). When Leontes realizes how wrong he was, he spends his time lamenting his actions. The baby, of course, is rescued by an Old Shepherd (Grant) and his clownish son, the Young Shepherd (Nina Grollman, who also plays the lady-in-waiting, Emilia); they name her Perdita (Ayana Workman).
A chronological jump of 16 years is introduced by a character called Time (Murray); Perdita has grown up and become the lover of Polixenes’ son, Florizel (Chris Myers). Various plot devices transpire, including a statue of the supposedly long-dead Hermione coming to life and reuniting with her joyful, repentant husband. All’s well that ends well, as another Shakespearean play would have it.
While the play introduces several thoughtful themes, its multiple illogicalities, exaggerations, and far-fetched developments require a particular lightness of touch; it has to maintain an essential level of believability while also providing room for broad comedy and moving sentiment. All this is accomplished far more successfully in this production than many more elaborate, star-studded ones.*
The use of a puppet for Mamillius (designed by James Ortiz) helps establish the fairy-tale nature of the proceedings, a device that also is humorously used for the huge bear that chases Antigonus, a creature built in five sections, head and legs, each handled by another actor. Bohemia is conceived of as a world of Stetson-wearing farmers and cowboys; there’s even line dancing to Heather Christian’s banjo and fiddle music during the sheep-shearing festivities.
Casting the Young Shepherd with the overalls-wearing Nina Grollman, her long, blond tresses undisguised, is another clever touch, and inspires several strong laughs based on the actress’s awareness of the gender confusion she represents. There’s also an applause-generating highlight when Grant’s Antigonus is pursued by the bear only to reappear a second later as the Old Shepherd.
Not a single weak link appears in the excellent company, with particularly memorable work coming from Stacey Yen’s Hermione, Patrena Murray’s Paulina and Time, Christopher Ryan Grant’s Old Shepherd, Nina Grollman’s Young Shepherd, Justin Cunningham’s Leontes, and Nicholas Hoge’s Polixenes.
Yen’s trial scene shows the actress’s remarkable ability to express Hermione’s tragic situation with an impassioned voice whose resonance and expressive clarity is never overwhelmed by the powerful emotions she projects. Murray has a clarion voice matched by concentrated conviction that deserves to be heard and seen more often. Grant and Grollman, making good use of a shepherd’s crook, are a rare example of American actors making Shakespeare’s rustics really funny. Cunningham brings authenticity to Leontes’ obsessive jealousy and devastating guilt. And Hoge’s scene of anger at Florizel is among the production’s most vital moments.
There’s nothing wintry about this The Winter’s Tale but it’s still a pretty cool revival.
*Theatre buffs might find the credits for the first ever production of The Winter’s Tale at the Public’s Delacorte Theatre in Central Park interesting.
425 Lafayette Ave., NYC
Through December 17