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Cute Sheep, Crazy King Make ‘The Winter’s Tale’ Odd Mix: Review

Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in "The Winter's Tale," at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in New York. The late Shakespeare romance is running in repertory with "The Merchant of Venice" through Aug. 1. Tickets are free. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Public Theater via Bloomberg

“The Winter’s Tale” may be Shakespeare’s hardest play to stage, but Michael Greif’s uneven direction at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, starless, mis- and undercast, makes the task seem harder still.

From Shakespeare we are to believe that pregnant Queen Hermione has cuckolded her husband, King Leontes of Sicilia, merely because of warm hospitality shown to his visiting friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia. Despite Apollo and the Delphic oracle having proclaimed her guiltless, Leontes condemns her to prison. Later thought to have died, she survives in the house of Paulina, her faithful lady-in-waiting, where she pretends to be her own statue.

Her young son, Mamilius, has died, presumably of grief. Perdita, the child she bore in prison and proclaimed by Leontes a bastard, was sent off to be exposed in the Bohemian wilderness by the good Antigonus, Paulina’s husband, exiled there for sticking up for his queen.

A comic father and son pair of shepherds finds the baby and rear her as a shepherdess. She catches the eye of Prince Florizel, son of Polixenes, and they fall in love. Lord Camillo, another believer in Hermione, is now exiled to Bohemia. Polixenes, unhappy about his son’s dallying with a shepherdess, enlists Camillo and, disguised, they go to investigate and retrieve the prince from an unsuitable match.

Woolly Tale

It is the sheep-shearing festival, and Autolycus, a crooked peddler and comic womanizer, steals from the shepherds and romances the shepherdesses.

Unfortunately, much of this lacks charm, despite the opening of numerous trap doors, whose raised inside covers reveal flowery meadows and cutely protruding toy sheep. Not to mention paper pigeons at the end of long sticks, carried about and brandished time and again.

But enough of plot. Greif has overdone a Delacorte tradition of color-blind casting, which here makes even less sense than usual. Ruben Santiago-Hudson speaks and carries himself well as Leontes, despite unregal looks; Jesse L. Martin blusters overmuch as Polixenes. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is a fine Paulina, but Francois Battiste, overage, squat, bald, and whiny-voiced, is an unfortunate Florizel

Gerry Bamman’s Antigonus and Byron Jennings’s Camillo do nicely. But Hamish Linklater is a mediocre comedian as Autolycus, and pretty Heather Lind a disastrously babyish Perdita. Max Wright and Jesse Tyler Ferguson are farcical enough as the shepherds.

Matronly Hermione

Linda Emond, a gifted actress, is a problem in the key role of Hermione. She looks rather too matronly as Hermione from the getgo, and though she reads her lines decently does not manage to make us believe in her tragic vulnerability. Regrettably, too, a shadow-play bear looks too absurd to be menacing, let alone make a meal of poor Antigonus.

Mark Wendland’s set is mostly a curving glass-paned wall upstage -- as of a solarium or herbarium -- and the toy sheep and cardboard birds are droll but too cutesy. Clint Ramos’s costumes are attractive, except for Perdita’s one-shoulder modish evening gown, unsuited to a shepherdess. Ken Posner’s lighting convinces, but Tom Kitt’s music, from a small band on the sidelines, is uninspired, as is Dontee Kiehn’s pedestrian choreography.

The outdoors played tricks with Hermione’s “statue” as her supposedly stone gown billowed merrily in the breeze. Missing too was the wintriness to justify the title. Still, this is a play rarely seen, and an audience mostly new to it seemed perfectly happy.

“The Winter’s Tale” alternates with “The Merchant of Venice” through Aug. 1 at the Delacorte Theater; enter Central Park at East 79th or West 81st streets. Tickets are free; reserved seats are available for a tax-deductible contribution of $350. Information: +1-212-539-8500; Rating: * 1/2

What the Stars Mean:

****       Do Not Miss
***        Excellent
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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