The Winter’s Tale @ BAM Harvey Theater , New York

cast list
Simon Russell Beale, Michael Braun, Selina Cadell, Morven Christie, Sinad Cusack, Richard Easton, Rebecca Hall, Josh Hamilton, Ethan Hawke, Paul Jesson, Aaron Krohn, Dakin Matthews, Mark Nelson, Charlotte Parry, Gary Powell, Tobias Segal, Jessical Pollert Smith, Hannah Stokely

directed by
Sam Mendes
After the Bridge Project’s splendid production of The Cherry Orchard, which began in January and continues to play in repertory at BAM’s Harvey Theatre, expectations for the company’s production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale were understandably high.

That Sam Mendes’s visually beautiful production packs just a smidge less of the punch that The Cherry Orchard does is likely due to the status of Shakespeare’s late play as a “problem play.” Though its first three acts are mosly filled with realistic drama, the final two are comedic.

Mendes handles the challenge of the problem play – as well as the transcontinental accents of his cast – with great aplomb, allowing the Sicilians, who dominate the first acts, to be played by the buttoned-up Brits while the Bohemians, who enliven the comic scenes, are played by North Americans.
This choice may not add much to the play’s meaning, but it’s a fun send-up of cross-cultural differences and allows for an audience to keep up with the story, which can be confusing at times.

All is not well in the land of Sicilia, where the story begins. Leontes, King of Sicilia, grows jealous of his wife Hermione when he suspects her to have taken up with the visiting King of Bohemia, Polixenes. He puts Hermione on trial for her actions, sending her bastard child away despite the wishes of the oracle, who has sent word in defense of Hermione. The second half of the play follows that child, young Perdita, who has been raised by a shepherd and is betrothed to the prince Florizel.

Their Bohemian merriment is interrupted by the arrival of a scurrilous balladeer by the name of Autolycus, here played with a Bob Dylan-cum-Rob Zombie swagger by Ethan Hawke, who’s dressed accordingly, his songs composed by Mark Bennett, whose talents are put to better use here than in The Cherry Orchard.

Besides for Hawke’s performance, several other of the North Americans stand out, including Richard Easton as the dotty old shepherd and Michael Braun, who is confident and impressive as Florizel. Still, as in The Cherry Orchard, the acting power of the Brits prevails. Simon Russell Beale makes a great Leontes, full of inner conflict and external power. Rebecca Hall steals the show as Hermione, dominating the courtroom scene, which sees her character lowered in means, dressed in humble robes rather than gowns.

The costumes, by Catherine Zuber, are elegant and stylish. Anthony Ward’s sets, including beautifully rendered purple-gray and sky blue backdrops for the scenes in Bohemia, are simple and effective. Paul Pyant’s lighting, which compartmentalizes the stage very practically, is well done.

Though the production takes a while to heat up (its early scenes are considerably overshadowed by the comedy of the second half), by the end of the night, the stage is on fire. It’s bittersweet that this fine production should end the Bridge Project’s first season at BAM’s Harvey Theatre – sweet in the breadth of its accomplishments, but leaving in its wake the bitter aftertaste of the yearlong wait for next season’s batch of Mendes-helmed productions.

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