By Sarah Downs
The Winter’s Tale, an allegory of the hubris of self-righteousness is aptly titled, telling, as it does, the story of a man whose cold heart pushes him to betrayal and remorse. The play is classic Shakespeare, encompassing love, loss and redemption. In this creative production by the Mobile Unit at the Public Theater, it has been given just the right kind of ‘makeover’ (or a ‘make-under,’ as it were) in an intelligently abridged interpretation that stays true to the original.
In not-so-brief: King Leontes of Sicilia (Justin Cunningham) accuses this wife Hermione (Stacey Yen) and King Polixenes of Bohemia (Nicholas Hoge) of having an affair, asserting that his daughter Perdita (Ayana Workman) is actually a product of their passion. After Polixenes escapes with the help of Leontes’ confidante Camillo, (Sathya Sridharan) Leontes imprisons Hermione. Her faithful servant Paulina (Patrena Murray) pleads for the life of baby Perdita but to no avail. Leontes condemns the girl to perish on the shores of Bohemia. In quick succession his son dies, Hermione dies and Leontes realizes to his eternal horror, that he has murdered his own happiness. Meanwhile, baby Perdita has been discovered by an old shepherd (Christopher Ryan Grant) who, with his son (Nina Grollman) raises the girl in innocent freedom. She meets and falls in love with Prince Florizel (Chris Myers), but his father Polixenes cannot countenance his son’s marriage to a shepherdess. Just when all hope is lost the possibility of resolution beckons. Forgiveness is the key that can unlock the cold heart of fate.
Director Lee Sunday Evans has skillfully focused her adaptation on the essentials of the narrative to tell this rich story in a short time without sacrificing its complexity. She is aided and abetted by a dynamic group of actors who move with assured step through swift scene changes, timeless/out-of-time text, and the network of confusion and misunderstanding at the center of the plot. The only thing that doesn’t work is the puppet of King Leontes’ son. It requires more man handling than the space can contain. The bigger problem, however, is that it looks like an alien.
The cast is consistently strong, both as an ensemble and individually. Among them, Justin Cunningham brings a youthful warmth and a kind of everyman nobility to his role as the jealous King Leontes. His vulnerability is as palpable as his anger. As his wife, Stacey Yen is delicate and strong in equal measure, qualities shared by Ayana Workman as her daughter. The standout performance is that of Christopher Ryan Grant. In the dual role of Antigonus, Leontes’ trusted friend who is tasked with taking baby Perdita to Bohemia, and the Old Shepherd, Grant nails the contrast between sober, dedicated servant of the King and crazed hillbilly. It’s hysterical.
Modernizing a great play can sometimes fall flat but there is no danger of that here. Shakespeare’s work is, as ever, relevant, and made all the more approachable in this excellent production.
The Winter’s Tale, directed by Lee Sunday Evans; with Justin Cunningham, Christopher Ryan Grant, Nina Grollman, Nicholas Hoge, Patrena Murray, Chris Myers, Sathya Sridharan, Ayana Workman, and Stacey Yen; featuring scenic design by Mariana Sanchez, costume design by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, puppet design by James Ortiz, and music composition by Heather Christian. Presented by Mobile Unit, at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., through December 17th. Admission is free; tickets available via TodayTix mobile Lottery and in-person distribution at the theater. More information is available here. Run time 100 minutes, no intermission.