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Shakespeare in the Park's "The Winter's Tale"

The Public must be feeling brave. For this summer’s annual Shakespeare in the Park the company has chosen to stage the problematic “The Winter’s Tale” and the dark, depressing and downright un-summery “The Merchant of Venice.” “Merchant” gets some help from Al Pacino, whose having another go at Shylock, a role he played opposite Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes in the 2004 film of the same name. “Merchant” may not be the bawdy romp in the woods summertime audiences oftentimes prefer, but “The Winter’s Tale” somewhat makes up for the lack of Elizabethan bathroom humor.

I’m talking, of course, about Autolycus, arguably the most likable character, played here in a show-stealing performance by Hamish Linklater. Linklater spits and burps, moons the audience and makes light of petty theft; In his introductory scene he steals the pants right off the unsuspecting Shepherd’s son. He’s a welcome reprieve to the high, and I’ll argue unlikely drama of the previous 3 acts, but it makes for an unbalanced play. Leontes’ sudden attack of raging jealousy and the consequences of his unbelievably harsh actions thereafter consumes the greater part of the story. There is much classic Shakespearean verse: Leontes’ lines deteriorate along with his mental faculties and Hermione’s piteous protestations are delivered by Linda Emond accompanied by many moans and wails. Once she and her son die and Leontes laments what he has done, we’re transported in Act 4 to happy-go-lucky Bohemia, where all life’s a poke in the hay and even the people who died in Act 3 can be brought back to life through the magic of theatre (and they all live happily ever after).

That’s how the story goes according the original text, an insufferably long and tedious script that was smartly edited down to the essentials in The Public’s rendition, with clever changes like reassigning Time’s role to Antigonus (another stand out by Gerry Bamman) and cutting the boring deliberation between Autolycus and the Bohemians on what song he’ll sing at their sheep-shearing festival. In an attempt to balance out the disparate moods of the play’s two halves, Act 4 remains a buoyant breath of fresh air but Act 5 is toned down to more closely reflect the mood in the beginning, so that when Hermione comes back to life there isn’t so much jumping up and down and celebrating with drink as there is a somber reflection of past deeds. In short, the production made the best attempt I’ve ever seen of turning what is historically known as “An Old Wive’s Tale,” in which an old woman tell’s a merry tale to pass the time on a dreary winter’s day – the only proviso being that no matter what happens it will end happily – into a legitimately moving play.