In the classic Mel Brooks routine 2000-year-old Man, Brooks’ character says one of the keys to his longevity is eating nectarines. ‘Half a peach, half a plum, it’s a hell of a fruit.’ “The Winter’s Tale” is somehow similar: half a tragedy, half a comedy, it’s a strange and amazing play.
The story begins with Leontes (Billy Campbell), King of Sicilia, hosting childhood friend, Polixenes (Paul Michael Valley), King of Bohemia. Polixenes has been staying with Leontes and his pregnant wife Hermione (Natacha Roi) for many months and is ready to go. However, entreaties from Leontes and Hermione convince him to stay.
But suddenly a turn. Leontes convinces himself that Polixenes has long been sleeping with Hermione and the child is illegitimate. Quite quickly, life in the palace disintegrates. Plots are hatched, people flee, others are imprisoned.
Courtiers, led by Antigonus (Mark Nelson), try to convince their lord of his folly, but their efforts are mostly half-hearted. They recognize their own vulnerability to crazy autocrats. Antigonus’s wife Paulina (Angel Desai) makes the most spirited attempt but to no avail. Once the girl is born, Antigonus takes her to Bohemia where she is discovered by sheepherders, who have no clue who she is, and he is killed by a bear. Yes, tragedy.
Campbell is magnetic as Leontes, easily cycling between cordial friendship and reckless anger as his courtiers cower in his wake. He pulls off the improbable trick of being both unsympathetic and likable.
His fellow cast members are equally adept. The courtiers are visibly pained by their lord’s break with reality. Nelson is particularly strong. We can see the wheels turning: Intervene strongly and risk his demise or demur and work some benefit from the inside. Desai’s Paulina is heartbreaking as she tries to make the king see reason.
In the second half, the play fast-forwards 16 years to life in Bohemia, a land of hayseeds and hucksters. Leontes’ and Hermione’s daughter Perdita (Maya Kazan) is a young woman in love with Florizel (A.Z. Kelsey), King Polixenes’ son.
While, the first half of the play is dark and foreboding, the second is light and amusing. Kind, agrarian folk celebrate a sheep-shearing. Autolycus (Paul Kandel), a rogue in leather chaps, swindles his way through them with unbridled glee.
In his direction, Edelstein embraces these contrasts and even works to accentuate them. Sicilia is the Upper East Side: hip soirees and skinny ties. Bohemia is upstate: overalls and straw hats. All that’s missing is Arnold the pig.
If handled poorly, the abrupt changes in scenery, tone and characters in “The Winter’s Tale” could easily induce whiplash, not to mention the inability to suspend disbelief. But the fine cast and direction mostly overcome these obstacles. The play is fun, interesting and weird. Best to accept it.