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The Winter's Tale

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Winter's Tale
Photo by Joan Marcus

Though the title of The Winter's Tale suggests something of a chilly, even sullen, play, that's never actually been true. William Shakespeare's late-career romance, in fact, is more notable for its warmth of tone, which results in a deeply atmospheric, loving play that nonetheless doesn't shy from glimpsing at the darker angels of our nature (jealousy, treachery, and so on). So in a way it's appropriate that this play would be chosen for the second annual installment of the Public Works project at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where The Public Theater partners with the City of New York for an evening of entertainment that celebrates the community at least as much as—and, in reality, quite a bit more than—the drama itself.

In this musical version conceived and directed by Lear deBessonet, which plays its final performance tonight, the yawning diversity of the city's artistic climate is on unmistakable display. In addition to 20-person acting company, there's also ensemble of close to a hundred, which doesn't count the additional dozens from the cameo groups comprising Rosie's Theater Kids, the New York Theatre Ballet (under the choreography, as is everyone else, of Chase Brock), Capoeira Luanda, the Bond Street Theatre's Shinbone Alley Stilt Band, the four-man Staten Island Lions Chinese dancers, Megha Kalia's NYC Bhangra Dance Company, a trio of urban park rangers from the Parks system, and, in the most delightful spot, a group from Sesame Street highlighting Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and theatre favorite Stephanie D'Abruzzo (as a chocolate chip cookie) doing a Shakespeare-inspired song and dance by Molly Boylan and Bill Sherman.

There's no way to avoid deriving some sort of thrill from watching scores of dancers clad in Technicolor-drenched anything-goes costumes (by Paul Carey) representing the teeming throngs of free-thinking Bohemia, as but one example of many, and each of the individual troupes is undeniably talented and a valuable component of the performing arts scene in New York City. And that is, of course, the real point of all this.

So it hardly seems sporting, or constructive, to dwell too much on the fact that deBessonet and Todd Almond, who wrote the sprawling if unruly new score that tries to wrangle the myriad onstage styles into one cohesive sound (and almost succeeds), have not crafted a serious adaptation for all these people. They've sliced and diced the script into a 100-minute, intermissionless show that has, perhaps, an hour of dialogue (most of the rest is elided by narrator Almond, who waves past whole scenes with a shrug), which is paired with songs that explore characters and push ahead in the plot in at best superficial ways. There are a couple for King Leontes (Isaiah Johnson) as he ponders his perceived infidelity of his wife, Hermione (an authoritative but underused Lindsay Mendez); she gets one repudiating him, and their daughter Perdita (Idania Quezada) and her betrothed Florizel (Javier Spivey) get to sing some 16 years down the line as they try to untangle the mess Leontes made of pretty much everything.

But no conscious effort has been spent to tell Shakespeare's story, which would explain why there are so many jokes about the bear that chases away one of the characters in one of history's most famous stage directions, and why inordinate amounts of stage and score time have been given to the thief Autolycus, who gags and croons endlessly about stealing others wallets and cellphones. (In one bit, he pickpocketed Senator Charles Schumer, who was brought onstage apparently only to add to the running time.) Considering Autolycus is played by the gifted musical-comedy actor Christopher Fitzgerald, giving by far the most accomplished performance of the night, and that he romps about the stage with a convivial joy that eclipses everyone else occupying every available inch of Justin Townsend's neon-fantasy-ballroom set, this is less of a diminishment than it might be were deBessonet and Almond even pretending to be faithful.

They're serving masters other than the Bard here, and that's okay. Still, I couldn't help but be disappointed at how much of the charming original had been lost, and how theatrically underwhelming and anodyne everything that remained was. Above all else, this is the first time the sparkling, haunting final scene has ever failed to move me—the surprising transformation and turnaround it contains is one of the most gloriously unexpected moments in all of Shakespeare, and this time around it was barely an afterthought. But there's little point in complaining—deBessonet and Public Works are swapping the magic of Shakespeare for the wonderment of New York. Whether you think that's an even trade will determine whether you run hot or cold on this Winter's Tale.

Public Works at the Delacorte Theater
The Winter's Tale
Through September 7
Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The Central Park entrances closest to the theater are at 81st Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue.

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