BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
A stormy play, "The Winter's Tale" might seem like cold comfort on a summer's night in Central Park, but Shakespeare's dark romance looks pretty good at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. What's more, it comes free in the Public Theater's summertime rep series with "The Merchant of Venice."
Staged with more clarity than speed by Michael Greif, the revival that opened Thursday invites audiences on a leisurely visit to Sicilia and Bohemia that wisely takes advantage of the Delacorte's natural surroundings.
Trees bordering the stage are brilliantly illuminated for the pastoral scenes and the lake is viewed darkly through a misty glass wall when times are tragic.
Too bad the story does not begin as dramatically as it might, since Ruben Santiago-Hudson really doesn't work up sufficient emotional steam as Leontes, the king whose inexplicable bout of paranoia leads to death and exile for those nearest him. His emotional variations on an angry theme are monotonous and too few, much as composer Tom Kitts' skittering music strives to support the performance.
Linda Emond sweetly gives voice to Leontes' increasingly haggard queen Hermione. Smacking soldiers in her fury, Marianne Jean-Baptiste vigorously depicts the queen's sharp-tongued defender Paulina. A specialist in afflicted gentlemen, Byron Jennings (who plays the title figure in "The Merchant of Venice" on other nights) looks wonderfully conscious-stricken as the lord ordered to poison his guest. Their good work somewhat compensates for Santiago-Hudson's stolid acting during the earliest scenes.
Fortunately, Shakespeare soon supplies a terrific sequence when Leontes defies the truths told by the gods and Greif dramatically orchestrates everything with orange flames, clouds of incense and blinding flashes of thunderous lighting.
After that delayed launching, the production gathers momentum and confidence as the story travels to Bohemia for merrier interludes on the way to redemption some 16 years later when a long-repentant Leontes is reunited with his daughter Perdita, demurely played by Heather Lind.
Meanwhile Jesse Tyler Ferguson giddily skips amid the clover as Perdita's silly stepbrother, Hamish Linklater is disreputable but scarcely dangerous as the roguish Autolycus and an affable Jesse L. Martin wears his crown lightly as the king of Bohemia. Gerry Bamman sturdily portrays the loyal courtier who gets eaten by a bear (a nice effect with a looming shadow puppet, incidentally.)
Cute puppets of lambs and birds occasionally pop up among the characters whose colorful garb by Clint Ramos suggests Middle-Eastern places way back when. Ken Posner's vivid lighting and Mark Wendland's stark scenic design makes excellent use of the Central Park locale.
"The Winter's Tale" continues through Aug. 1 in rep with "The Merchant of Venice" at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park off W. 81st St., New York. Call (212) 539-8750 or visit www.shakespeareinthepark.org.
ALSO BY MICHAEL SOMMERS