What with the Public Theater’s time-honored traditions of bizarre casting and street-corner American accents, patrons of free Shakespeare in the Park productions don’t always get their money’s worth. All hail, then, helmer Michael Greif, for his imaginatively conceived, smartly executed, and terrifically entertaining production of “The Winter’s Tale.” Although one of the stupidest plays in the canon, this late-period romance has juicy roles and gorgeous verse, spoken here with such clarity as to make your eyes water. Even the more baffling directorial choices are pretty to see, thanks to a design team that appreciates how much we groundlings love our spectacle.
In keeping with Shakespeare’s fascination with transformation themes, his characters go through some amazing changes before this fanciful play is through.
Leontes (the very model of a suffering hero, in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s perf), the blindly jealous King of Sicilia who turns on his best friend and has his queen executed because of his ungrounded suspicions of their infidelity, is allowed to do penance and reform himself into a saint.
Polixenes (the most steadfast of manly man-friends, in Jesse L. Martin’s robust perf), so fair-minded a monarch when he first appears as the King of Bohemia, is sent home to turn into a tyrannical daddy who would rather disinherit his son than see him marry a shepherd’s daughter.
Queen Hermione (the embodiment of feminine virtue and intelligence, in Linda Emond’s moving perf) is literally restored to life by virtue of her husband’s 16-year penitence and her own unswerving faith in him.
Paulina (a feminine force to be reckoned with, in Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s fiery perf), the queen’s fearless and down-to-earth champion in Act I, gets all spooky and acquires witchy qualities in Act II.
In compliance with Shakespeare’s late-life belief in the transformative power of penitential suffering, even the secondary characters are allowed to do a little shape-shifting. Autolycus (a dazzling quicksilver turn by Hamish Linklater), the rogue servant who is given the old heave-ho by his royal master for his wicked ways, cuts a cute figure when he’s forced to live by his wits in the forest of Bohemia. But through a series of selfless acts, even this bad boy is reborn as the faithful servant he never was.
As the play builds to its fantastical conclusion, the transformations come thick and fast. Disguises are assumed and cast off, false identities are adopted and tossed aside, and anyone wearing a hooded cloak finds an excuse to fling it off with a flourish. (Credit Clint Ramos for the clever design of these diverting costumes.) In the end, even the dead come back to life — surely the most magical of all transformations.
Taking his directorial cue from the play’s magical and mystical elements, Greif dresses the stage like something from out of the Arabian nights. Oriental carpets cover the broad stage. Bowls of exotic fruits adorn Mediterranean-style tables. Candles are clustered everywhere.
The only design element that doesn’t quite make sense is an immense multi-paned glass wall that is raised and lowered at arbitrary moments. But no matter; it makes a nice backdrop for the colorful pageantry (puppets! kites! golden pallets!) and charming court dances.
Greif wisely tones down the eye candy for the moments that really matter — those flights of lyrical poetry, well grasped by these actors, that elevate the characters beyond the sometimes foolish roles they play.
Martin, standing tall and looking fine in his kingly duds, delivering Polixenes’ impassioned defense of the Queen and of his own honor. Faithful Camillo (the very fine Byron Jennings), begging the king to purge his mind of its “diseased” thoughts. Emond, magnificent in the courtroom scene in which Hermione declares her innocence — and her regal outrage at being branded an adulteress. Santiago-Hudson’s inflamed Leontes, declaring his intention to bash the life from his own child. Jean-Baptiste’s Paulina, hurling herself at the king for making that declaration of savagery.
Among all the transformations, the one we welcome most is the transformation of a traditional rag-tag band of summer players into a formidable acting ensemble.