A Redemption Song Redeems Shakespeare in Central Park

If we can romance Shakespeare in Central Park, we are glad. God knows, the New York Shakespeare Festival’s wayward productions have sometimes tested us in the past. But when we have work as graceful as Brian Kulick’s production of The Winter’s Tale , all is well on this “bawdy planet.” Shakespeare in Central Park can seem at such glorious, easeful times more like a kind of miracle and gift to the city, as sunset approaches and bugs assail the spotlights and a helicopter circles above the timeless players.

I confess I’ve always approached the play itself gingerly, along with such other puzzling late Shakespeare romances as Cymbeline and Pericles . What exactly is The Winter’s Tale ? A tragedy of unfathomable jealousy and paranoia? “A sad Tale’s best for Winter” is the line that tips us off. A wintry tale, then-except virtually the entire second half is a springtime pastoral idyll. A destructive tragedy of marriage and middle age, it is also a redemptive tale of young love, as well as a knockabout comedy, a poetic fable, a parable of renewal or a fantastic story in which even a statue comes to life. What on earth, or more likely in heaven (for The Winter’s Tale cannot be earthbound), is Shakespeare up to?

When in doubt, I’ve found it prudent to concede that the Bard might understand a thing or two that we don’t, including his most famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” I’ll come to that always troublesome bear and Mr. Kulick’s deft handling of it. But look at just a few of the momentous events that take us by surprise in this beautiful, paradoxical drama, in which 16 years pass between the explosively tragic first part and the happy second as if all is a dream. Time itself is a chorus in the play, and time heals, they say.

The King of Sicilia suddenly accuses his innocent, pregnant wife of adultery with his oldest friend, the King of Bohemia. (“We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun.”) His wife had merely persuaded their friend to stay with them longer-a slender excuse for this majestic king to erupt with insane jealousy, imprison his loyal wife, order the poisoning of his lifelong friend and have his newborn daughter abandoned on the shores of some remote, deserted place where she will surely die. Believing her to be illegitimate, he would have preferred to have had the baby killed, but relented.

So the decent king is destroyed, becoming an unhinged thug. Only the death of his son, fulfilling vengeful oracular fate, and the apparent death of his grieving wife brings him to his remorseful, agonized senses. It says much for Keith David’s commanding, eloquent dignity as King Leontes that he can make the blistering outrage of his irrational, frenzied accusations seem quite reasonable, like a well-educated man insisting indignantly that the earth is flat. “Is whispering nothing? / Is leaning cheek to cheek? / Is meeting noses? / Kissing with inside lip?” The natural humanity and strength of Aunjanue Ellis’ Queen Hermione convinces us of her innocence and her moving, compassionate love. “Adieu, my lord: / I never wished to see you sorry; now / I trust I shall.”

Even so, we feel outraged on her behalf. King Leontes has been inexplicably consumed by the cruelty of an overnight tyrant. He is closed to all reason. Leontes, in his murderous jealousy, is another version of Othello. But at least that conquering, arriviste Moor revealed a kernel of insecurity in his marriage to fair Desdemona. What’s Leontes’ excuse? (Or plea bargain?) Shakespeare, the modern psychologist, understood that jealousy need not have a reason. Imagining you have “drunk and seen the spider” is lethal excuse enough.

Enter a bear. Poor Antigonus, a tasty dish to be set before a bear, has abandoned the queen’s banished baby daughter on the shore of Bohemia. In many ways, the play is about loyalty and fidelity, or trust. The king betrays his wife by distrusting her, and wrecks not only his own life. Camillo, a lord of Sicilia (given a terrific, measured performance by Henry Stram) betrays the king by refusing to poison the King of Bohemia, and lives to a ripe old age. Antigonus (Jonathan Hadary, in another appealing performance) loyally follows orders and is eaten by a bear. Those are the breaks.

But the director, Mr. Kulick, handles the Bear Moment with inspired simplicity. Instead of skirting farce with an actor lunging about the place in a bear costume (or risking Elizabethan danger with a real bear), he has Mr. David’s Leontes covered with a bear rug during heavy, guilt-ridden sleep. As Antigonus exits in the distance, Leontes awakens as if from a nightmare to follow him. The suggestion is clear, deftly linking the abrupt change from the first-act cityscape to the second-act romance.

Shakespeare then throws down another unexpected ace, and the production is up to it in the mutating shape and form (and many voices) of Bronson Pinchot. He takes on the dangerously comic role of Autolycus, the balladeer and thief whose specialty is stealing sheets, of all suggestive things. In lesser hands, the demanding solo easily falters, dying the contemporary Shakespearean clown’s predictable death. But Mr. Pinchot, a pleasant tenor, not only delivers Shakespeare’s lovely songs with the assurance of a true balladeer. He’s a born comic mimic who brilliantly reinvents the role as a synthesis of a franglais Inspector Clouseau, an Isadora Duncan fleetingly airborne in windswept bedsheets and a buffoonish English aristocrat bent out of shape like a contorted cartoon.

I was less happy with the pastoral second half, though it had little or nothing to do with the young actors playing the lovers, happy symbols of newborn trust and the ecstasy of promised, eternal love. This is the clearest-spoken Shakespeare production I can remember from the Public. But the second act’s pace slows considerably when it should be at its lightest and most lyrical, and a couple of serious cuts in the text do not help. The stately formality of the velvety Victorian court scenes in Act One works well with the luxurious Botticelli backdrop. But Riccardo Hernandez’s sets for the contrasting Act Two are less successful, with postmodern trees stranded in brightly lit empty space like an autumnal window display. It is all too neat and surreal, verging on the arty. The pastoral scenes are ideally prettier and juicier (and messier). Magic is best taken rough-Shakespeare’s “rough magic.”

Mr. Kulick’s admirable production is ultimately too careful in that formal sense. But taking care is no crime. And there’s much to admire, not least the final, astonishingly touching scene when the statue of Hermione comes to life and walks into the arms of the weeping king. If only all the colossal mistakes we’ve made could be forgiven, and all the loved ones we’ve lost were resurrected. But why does Shakespeare have the statue? After all, Hermione could have first reappeared miraculously as herself. Great art is redemptive, a miraculous conception, perhaps. But what could be more tantalizing than to glimpse your lost love as a statue of such palpable beauty that it might be alive? “See, my Lord, / Would you not deem it breath’d? And that those veins / Did verily bear blood?”

And then have the statue come to life.