A Moving ‘Winter’s Tale,’ With Women in Charge

Posted March 25, 2018 10:21 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Shakespeare scholars categorize “The Winter’s Tale” as a “late romance,” as if the fuzziness or freedom of old age explained its weirdness. But Shakespeare was merely in his mid-40s when the play had its premiere around 1611.

It wasn’t senility melting the edges of form and letting the clowns and tragedians cross-pollinate; experience and mastery were doing that. Like Beethoven in the late string quartets or piano sonatas, Shakespeare in “The Winter’s Tale” — play No. 36 out of 39, give or take — no longer observes the lane lines. His tone is half demonic, half “I don’t give a damn.”

It’s also grief-stricken. Death is shown to be, like life, a chain. When Hermione, the queen of Sicilia, learns that her young son has died, the “news is mortal.”

“Look down and see what death is doing,” cries Paulina, her lady-in-waiting.

Perhaps it was Shakespeare crying as well. In the program notes for the moving production that opened Sunday at Theater for a New Audience, the director Arin Arbus points out that while writing “The Winter’s Tale,” Shakespeare was almost certainly thinking of his son, Hamnet, who died at age 11. That grief is at the heart of Arbus’ interpretation, and is almost enough to make the disparate pieces of this strange play hang together.

Shakespeare doesn’t make it easy. The first three acts, here combined as one, are swift psychological tragedy. Leontes, the king of Sicilia, becomes paranoid about the relationship between Hermione and his best bro, King Polixenes of Bohemia. (Leontes indelibly condemns the pregnant Hermione as a “bed swerver.”) In just a few moments and on no evidence but sighs, his fear of being cuckolded mutates into something far worse: the uncheckable rage of a rash and powerful man.

Despite the furious intervention of Paulina, his warped will cannot be diverted: Hermione must be tried for treason. That’s what kills the prince — and soon, after delivering a daughter, who is banished, Hermione dies, too. By the time Leontes realizes his error, it’s too late.

A normal tragedy would end right there, but after the intermission “The Winter’s Tale” leaps 16 years, thousands of miles and several genres to become a pastoral comedy set in Bohemia. The famous “exit pursued by a bear” scene serves as the hinge between the two theatrical worlds, and we now spend an hour or so with the requisite rubes, light-fingered scalawags, misallied lovers and sheepshearing hoydens.

But before we can fully identify what happened to the plot, which involves the banished baby and her adoptive family, we are uprooted once again. Back to Sicilia we go, for a denouement that is all melodrama and magic. Hermione, apparently preserved all these years as a statue and now brought back to life by Paulina, is reunited with her lost daughter and humbled husband. Whether it counts as a happy ending may depend on how long it takes you to stop trying to make sense of it.

Most productions I have seen work too hard to make these elements emulsify. (The rustic act is a chore in any case.) Arbus, who has directed six other Shakespeare plays for Theater for a New Audience, including an especially notable “Othello,” doesn’t try; rather, she emphasizes the lumps. She begins with a severe white set (by Riccardo Hernandez) but also with the Bohemian bear, dancing in the snow and demonstrating that what follows will be both grisly and giddy.

From there until the final image, which powerfully reminds us that not every loss can be undone, the production insists on pushing the tonal contrasts rather than smudging them. The different seasons of the year and the different experiences of restraint and freedom within them are skillfully sketched in Marcus Doshi’s lighting, Justin Ellington’s music and Emily Rebholz’s costumes (from tails and evening gowns to hayseed overalls).

But mostly Arbus depends on the excellent cast to squeeze the ripe Shakespearean language for all it’s worth. The actors in the Sicilian roles are especially fleet and pungent, which is one of the reasons the production, at two hours and 50 minutes, is much shorter than many. (It’s also lightly trimmed.) Anatol Yusef, recently a fine Laertes in the Oscar Isaac “Hamlet,” makes an unusually convincing Leontes, whipping himself into a lather of jealousy that seems perversely sexual in itself. And you may never hear a Paulina as fierce as Mahira Kakkar, who in her defense of Hermione nearly blows down the castle.

If Kakkar inevitably brings to mind the #MeToo moment, Arbus doesn’t dwell on it. She needn’t; the women are already the most powerful characters, and though that power is mostly moral, they eventually find ways to weaponize it. In Hermione’s resuscitation scene, regally played by Kelley Curran, Leontes’s contrasting shame is palpable. We understand that what Shakespeare values is not the anarchic emotionality of men but the vigilant self-possession of women.

Arbus’s production endorses that preference, suggesting a way to face all challenges — not just bizarre and catastrophic ones — honorably. Our lives will be both Sicilian and Bohemian, tragic and comic, constrained and free, “The Winter’s Tale” tells us. Some griefs will be assuaged; others will not. We must practice the patience to shoulder it all.

Beyond that it may be the most we can ask that, when we exit, it won’t be pursued by a bear.

Production Notes:

‘The Winter’s Tale’

Through April 15 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn; 866-811-4111, tfana.org. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

Credits: By William Shakespeare; directed by Arin Arbus; choreography by Austin McCormick; sets by Riccardo Hernandez; costumes by Emily Rebholz; lighting by Marcus Doshi; sound by Broken Chord; hair and makeup by J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova; props by Jon Knust; fight director, J. Allen Suddeth; voice and text coach, Alison Bomber; dramaturge, Jonathan Kalb; artistic associate, Marcello Magni; composer, Justin Ellington; production stage manager, Renee Lutz; general manager, Michael Page; associate producer, Susanna Gellert. Presented by Theater for a New Audience, Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director, Theodore C. Rogers, chairman, Dorothy Ryan, managing director.

Cast: Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Antigonus), Maechi Aharanwa (Mopsa/Emilia), Arnie Burton (Autolycus/Bear), Kelley Curran (Hermione), Eddie Ray Jackson (Florizel), Mahira Kakkar (Paulina), John Keating (Old Shepherd/Jailer), Robert Langdon Lloyd (Archidamus/Time/Officer of Court), Ed Malone (Clown/Jailer), Dion Mucciacito (Polixenes), Eli Rayman (Mamillius), Nicole Rodenburg (Perdita), Michael Rogers (Camillo/Cleomenes), Titus Tompkins (Mariner), Liz Wisan (Dorcas/Dion/First Lady) and Anatol Yusef (Leontes).