Obliging the coldest New York February since 1934–with average temperatures in the low twenties–producers have staged The Winter’s Tale (at The Pearl Theatre Company until March 15) and The Iceman Cometh (at BAM, also until March 15)–just to stay on theme and emphasize nature’s brutal whip (human or otherwise). In the first play, Shakespeare’s Prince Mamillius tells us “a sad tale’s best for winter,” but the subtext of these two productions is the opposite of that—they’re both successful events, worth venturing into the blinding frigidity to see (the Stage Voices review of Iceman is at:  http://www.stagevoices.com/stage_voices/2015/02/brian-dennehy-in-the-iceman-cometh-review-from-new-york.html )

Acoustically, The Winter’s Tale starts with Christmas-party jazz, as if we’re going to watch Charlie Brown on TV or are meeting a friend for a drink at a cozy night spot:  the initial interactions between the actors—who are playing royals, or those under their employ—may seem somewhat stiff and idealized, like watching a too-hip commercial or seeing the first minutes of a disaster movie (inevitably, such depictions feel untrue). Later, we’ll realize that the director, Michael Sexton, is finding his way through a post-modern vision of the Bard’s late Bromance. Sexton sees his men in business suits (costumes by Tilly Grimes), and he grounds the action and makes it run continuously, without scene interruptions (an important resolution, as much criticism of the play points to its lack of unity and too much outside action). Any security we may feel, however, is ripped apart as King Leontes falls into raging jealousy (well-modulated by Peter Francis James) and orders his boyhood friend, King Polixenes (also acted with subtlety by Bradford Cover), killed. His pregnant wife (ravishingly played by Jolly Abraham) is imprisoned. 

Ingmar Bergman, whose production of the same work is the gold standard, waited until he could find a framing device, a holiday party, before he staged it. At the Pearl, The Winter’s Tale is encased even further—typically, the drama is associated with area: palace rooms, sea coasts, and verdant nature (we feel its reverberation today when we see a production of Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Carousel). Here, Sexton places us inside a fashionable, urban, apartment (scene design by Brett J. Banakis), “a home,” which the director says, “feels personal, immediate, and real,” like the Brooklyn brownstone where he grew up. “For a good portion of the evening, we’re presenting the tale in a much more ‘realistic’ manner than is usually done.” Sexton’s creative handling of the space may be reminiscent of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, where a hotel room can become a war zone or in Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, where soldiers emerge out of a pool table.  You will not feel as if you are watching a simple relocation of a Shakespeare play, even if several recent productions of his works, Fiasco’s Cymbeline and Shakespeare in the Park’s As You Like It, have also suggested Appalachia as America’s best approximation of the Bard’s British countryside.

Shakespeare based his play on Pandosto, a prose romance, but it is also a loose variation on the Persephone myth, where Hermione is Demeter (descending into death) and Perdita is Persephone (bringing back the spring).  Clearly, the Bard, who also refers to the ancients through oracles and astrology, is using the story of Pygmalion as an inspiration in the famous living statue scene. Although the younger characters can seem uneven, the entire cast displays a memorable enactment of the role of Time. There are more surprises, including Rachel Botchan’s fiery Paulina and even a Surrealistic bear.  The Pearl’s reimagining of the oft-maligned The Winter’s Tale, in this clever, rejuvenating staging, is as welcome as the returning light. 

© 2015 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Visit the Pearl Theatre at: https://pearltheatre.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0Sd0000006F0czEAC 

'The Winter's Tale' by William Shakespeare

With Jolly Abraham, Rachel Botchan, Bradford Cover, Dominic Cuskern, Steve Cuiffo, Adam Green, Peter Francis James, Tom Nelis, Imani Jade Powers, and James Udom

Press: John Wyszniewski and Emily Reilly/Blake Zidell & Associates. 

Photograph:  Richard Termine.

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