The final two of the five Royal Shakespeare Company productions at the Park Avenue Armory offer a remarkable contrast in styles.
First is a warm, sometimes bawdy version of the Bard of Avon’s sorrow-streaked romance of love and forgiveness, “The Winter’s Tale.”
Then there’s a violence-prone updating of that surefire, ripped-from-the-headlines political thriller, “Julius Caesar.”
In “The Winter’s Tale,” the Sicilian king Leontes (the remarkable Greg Hicks, a master of rhetorical understatement and beautifully expressive body language) convinces himself that his adoring wife Hermione (the too put-upon Kelly Hunter) has been unfaithful with his best friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia (Darrell D’Silva, superbly, well, bohemian).
Not even the Oracle of Apollo can convince Leontes of her innocence. He condemns her to death and has their newborn girl banished to certain death on foreign shores.
There, however, the daughter Perdita (the charming Samantha Young) is raised by an old shepherd (Larrington Walker); she eventually falls in love with the slumming Florizel (Tunji Kasim, eager as a teen) -- who turns out to be Polixenes’ son.
On the way to a happy conclusion that includes a heartfelt resurrection and at least two marriages, a messenger is devoured by a bear several stories tall and the rustics entertain the young lovers in a high-spirited dance that takes Shakespeare’s reference to dildos to the height of hilariously raunchy literalness.
David Farr’s staging untangles a complex web of plotlines and uses words as visual metaphors -- notably in the conclusion of the first act. Towering bookcases come crashing down, leaving for the second act a stage littered with manuscripts, volumes and letters.
Jon Bausor’s papyral set is lit with pastoral beauty by Jon Clark, and if I have reservations about a few of the individual performances (Hunter seems too old; Brian Doherty uncharismatic as the rascally peddler Autolycus), the whole is much greater. I’ve rarely seen Shakespeare’s generous comedy played, with such warmth. Rating: *** (Jeremy Gerard)
A cage match between young Romulus (Tunji Kasim) and Remus (Joseph Arkley) in loin cloths prefaces “Julius Caesar,” setting the tone for Lucy Bailey’s feral production.
The American Red Cross could get a week’s worth of blood from the assassination scene alone.
Until receiving his unkind cuts, Hicks is a formidable Caesar. Frail and addled in the title role of “King Lear,” here he looks like he pumps iron daily. He’s a leader at the top of his game, albeit too confident to give due deference to the Ides of March.
Darrell D’Silva’s boozy Mark Antony is fun to watch and not subtle. When friends, Romans and countrymen lend him their ears, we understand even more clearly than usual that Brutus isn’t an honorable man, because Antony keeps bellowing that he is.
In contrast, Sam Troughton’s Marcus Brutus is a cerebral killer. (The actor suffered a knee injury during the July 12 matinee of “Romeo and Juliet,” forcing him to incorporate a cane into his performances). Other standouts: Hannah Young’s willful Portia (Mrs. Brutus), and Oliver Ryan evokes Peter Lorre as Casca, the first conspirator to strike Caesar.
The digital imagery -- whether of an angry mob, the ceiling of the Pantheon or flames rising, indicating Rome in ruin -- is effective if distracting. Rating: *** (Philip Boroff)
“The Winter’s Tale” and “Julius Caesar” are running through Aug. 14 in repertory with three other Shakespeare plays at the Park Avenue Armory, Park Avenue and East 67th Street. Information: +1-212-721-6500; http://www.lincolncenterfestival.org
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Not So Good (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard and Philip Boroff are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)