For the Public Theatre’s summer season of Shakespeare in the Park, the company returned to the old notion of repertory. Outside of a few principal roles, the two plays would be acted by the same core company of actors. The leads in both shows return to Shakespeare in the Park––Al Pacino having starred in JULIUS CAESAR in 1987 and Ruben Santiago-Hudson having previously starred in HENRY VIII in 1997. Now Mr. Santiago-Hudson leads THE WINTER’S TALE along with a super cast of contemporary talent that includes Jesse L. Martin, Linda Emond, Byron Jennings, Max Wright, Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. As King Leontes, Mr. Santiago-Hudson, struts about the stage bellowing. Although it is part of the character that he is driven to near insanity by his jealousy, there is very little to like in this all consuming and unreasonable character. Thankfully his character is absent for a good portion of the more comical second half where Max Wright as the Shepherd and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as his son (“The Clown”) make merry with great comic invention. A rapidly emerging young actor, Hamish Linklater, brings a quirky, strange humor to Autolycus the rogue. His clever thievery, mostly aimed at the Shepard and his son, make for comedy gold and the three come of as a kind of ancient Marx Brothers act. Jesse L. Martin has a great presence and with much less to do, steals the show from the dominating King Leontes.
Over all, Michael Greif has directed a clear and clean staging of the play with the effectively simple set by Mark Wendland and colorful costumes by Cint Ramos completing the package. Original music by Tom Kitt understores the action with a live band playing throughout. This detail gives the production another layer of class, for the music could have been more economically recorded, so cheers to the Public Theatre for keeping it live!
After several scenes, Al Pacino appears at the farthest up stage point of entry and walks down towards the audience greeted by welcoming applause in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. He is of course, Shylock, the character he also played in the film version. His reading is typically “Al Pacino” graced with a Jewish accent, but he is a commanding presence and I accepted him wholeheartedly in the role.
Earlier in the day the usually modestly attended “Queen’s Line” for tickets was double the length it was for THE WINTER’S TALE. I used the “Queen’s Line” for the first time this year and found it to be extraordinarily civilized in comparison to the Central Park line. One day a summer for each show, there is a line in the boroughs and on that day the performance is dedicated to that borough. The vouchers are given out at 1 PM and the line can be cleared in about 20 minutes. You take your voucher to the box office between 4 PM and 7:30 PM and get your real ticket. If you don’t show up by 7:30 PM, your ticket is given away to the next person waiting in the standby line. For Al Pacino, the standby line was also double the length from THE WINTER’S TALE.
But, back to the production: Directed by Daniel Sullivan and set in the Edwardian period, Mark Wendland designed a series of circular tracks that enabled rotating rod-iron gates and two platforms adorned with a spiral staircase and decorative iron work to quickly move and redefine the playing areas for each scene. Combined with Jess Goldstein’s costumes, the production looked more like E. M. Forster’s England than Venice, but the location of the play is rather insignificant. The idea of the Edwardian London businessman sits very well with the play.
Historically this play is placed in the category of comedy, however, it is anything but a comedy. What kind of comedy has the protagonist demand his pound of flesh (don’t forget the phrase comes from this play) literally? No it’s not figurative––Shylock is going to stick a knife into Antonio (Byron Jennings) and dig out that pound of flesh. He is legally able to do so before a court because that was the deal if Antonio couldn’t pay off his bond. But, there is a loophole! If Shylock sheds any blood (because the deal is for flesh and not blood), then he forfeits his assets to the state. Wait, there’s more: Shylock doesn’t have to give up his assets if he agrees to forsake his Jewish religion and become a Christian. I hate the politics of this play. What I loved was this terrific cast which included Jesse Tyler Ferguson providing the only real comedy, Jesse L. Martin who got to sing and give his RENT fans a thrill and the resplendent Lily Rabe as Portia. What makes this play a comedy in the Shakespearian sense is the lunacy of two ladies dressing as men and posing as lawyers––and getting away with it. Then there is some insane business with mixed up wedding rings and the couples all get back together in the end. None of this is actually funny, however. It’s all very serious, though there is humor within it, but it is the implausible turns of plot that make it a comedy. If a playwright were to submit this script today it would not be called a comedy and it would be promptly dropped in the recycling bin, but it’s Shakespeare so it’s gold. Although, trying to make an ancient play work is a director’s challenge and delight and it has been done this summer in a wondrous way.