At the end of summer, 2014, the colors of youth are Neon. The ultra-vibrant red, orange, pink, and yellow are exploding on footwear, shoelaces, handbags, and T-shirts in Central Park and on the street. If you haven’t turned your head to see them, you’re possibly stuck in a funk, as are the characters in the first half of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s exquisite take on the Demeter and Persephone myth. At the Delacorte–where the play ran for limited engagement on September 5-7–Justin Townsend’s set and Paul Carey’s costumes could dispel all the angst, if you stayed for the second half.
Usually, we imagine the 16-year-old abandoned child, Perdita, coming of age among the verdure of the Bohemian countryside. Now she’s encircled by cameo groups—wrapped and zapped by hue—including Rosie’s Theater Kids; New York Theatre Ballet; Capoeira Luanda; Bond Street Theatre’s Shinbone Alley Stilt Band; The Staten Island Lions; Sesame Street; Megha Kalia’s NYC Bhangra Dance Company; and Urban Park Rangers, NYC Parks.
The mission for the Public Works, under whose auspices The Winter’s Tale was produced, is “to engage New Yorkers to become creators as well as audience members.” The two-year old program, which “deliberately blurs the line between professional artists and community members,” creates theater that is not only for the people, but by and of the people as well.” Community partnerships this year include: Children’s Aid Society (Manhattan), Domestic Workers United (All Boroughs), DreamYard Project (Bronx), Fortune Society (Queens), and NYC Parks Department’s Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn).
The evening, directed with dispatch by Lear DeBessonet, is positive, even if the play is truncated and overrun by agenda. No contemporary playwright would let Big Bird make a guest appearance in his or her own problem play, but Shakespeare is allowed to be assaulted, if the intentions are good. The evening does allow a diverse audience—and Oskar Eustis’s preshow comments cautioned against seeing theatre as an “expensive commodity” so that rich people can sit in the dark. Better, he conjectured, even if he must realize that he needs rich people to keep the Public running, as well, is to view the stage as a way to form relationships—which here, he clearly has. The performance–akin to Street Theatre or follies or pageant—is not a deep-visioned rendering of Shakespeare’s late masterpiece. For that, the gold standard belongs to Ingmar Bergman’s 1995 production at BAM, imported from Sweden’s Dramaten. What the Delacorte evening does do is strengthen New York’s ecosystem of organizers and outreach—an idea important enough to attract Senator Charles Schumer to play a cameo on September 5.
The Winter’s Tale also seems to showcase another trend: a renewal of interest in musicals by the Public, which will continue in the fall with three others: Itamar Moses’s The Fortress of Solitude, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and Stew’s and Heidi Rodewald’s The Total Bent. Serviceable for the occasion, Todd Almond’s light-rock for The Winter’s Tale probably needs to be allowed further development. The composer, who also acts as a narrator–he brings a goth elegance and distance to the role—has a voice somewhat reminiscent of David Byrne, and his leitmotif for himself recalls Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Human Sacrifice” from Stephen Ward. His work, however, overshadows the Delacorte’s last musical offering, also a seeming introduction to Shakespeare.
Love’s Labour’s Lost (2013) intended to exhale the zeitgeist of the times, too. In that case,the 2009 British Globe’s touring production of the early Shakepeare play may have been evaluated—or should have been; the British production opened at Pace University that December. Published on the eleventh, and entitled “Pledge Week at That Elizabethan Animal House,” The New York Times critic, Ben Brantley, called the play “sophomoric,” which he actually meant as a compliment; he continued that “this word-infatuated frolic may well be the first and best example of a genre that would flourish in less sophisticated forms five centuries later: the college comedy.”
Whether Brantley had tipped his hand or not—he did offer an immediately accessible thumbnail for an adaptation. It might even appeal to the egalitarian vision of the Public, as the actual plot for Love’s Labour’s Lost is elitist. The king of Navarre, and his lords, intend to uphold an oath of chastity, fasting, and religious study—an oath which is immediately broken when women appear (although they are not even invited to stay inside during the night). However, the relocation to an American idiom—in this case, an average college town—could, with just a dab of downmarket raunch, allow the play to become a new Grease.
Some may also recall 1971’s Two Gentlemen of Verona—Love’s Labour’s Lost was actually the Delacorte’s first musical since that time—which was also culled from the early work of the Bard. That show wanted to rough up the pentameter, with the fumes of an accelerating city—the play begins with arch laughter about how Shakespeare will be treated. John Guare, Mel Shapiro, and Galt MacDermot, won Tony Awards, but MacDermot’s score isn’t emblematic of a typical musical of the time (Two Gentlemen of Verona can only be compared to his previous one, Hair). The music is loose (MacDermot was trained in jazz) and bluesy and sometimes intentionally naïf—perfect for rebroadcast with Big Bird's friends on Sesame Street, where, if you’re old enough, you may have heard “Good Morning Sunshine.”
Michael Friedman (songs) and Alex Timbers (Book adaptation and direction) wrote the new Love’s Labour’s Lost –they had won acclaim for the downtown hit Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (the production transferred to Broadway) and may have been thought of as the perfect inheritors of the Delacorte musical. Their work, however, didn’t react or rebel against anything—not old show music or society. Instead, they are compilers and condensers of types—both musically and in adaptation (using a brass band number, a Spanish song, a country Western number, rap). Until the last moments of the musical, they don’t show us anything beyond hormones and superficiality—especially noticeable with so much of the Bard’s language gone. Not that their task was easy—the music in Love’s Labour’s Lost is the words: imposing anything else on the play, makes it generic.
© 2014 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.