Mobile Unit’s The Winter’s Tale delivers Shakespeare to public

Fifty years ago, the founder of the Public Theater, Joseph Papp, initiated a mobile theater project he originally titled New York Shakespeare Festival. With a small cast and a few set pieces, the William Shakespeare production toured New York City, bringing theater to places where it was rarely, if ever, found. These places included libraries, prisons, multipurpose rooms and community centers. The New York Shakespeare Festival offered members of the community a chance to gather and see an aspect of culture that they may have not experienced before.

Hardly anyone is as suited for the mission to entice people into exploring a different culture than Shakespeare. His landscapes are always somewhat familiar, yet they also manage to singe fantasy into the skin. Fifty years later, Papp’s vision is honored in what the Public Theater has deemed its “Astor Season,” through their Mobile Unit production of The Winter’s Tale — Public’s reinvention of Papp’s mobile theater.

Under direction from Lee Sunday Evans, The Winter’s Tale is probably one of Shakespeare’s most tonally jarring comedies. The first act digs deep into the foolishness of pompous and jealous men who willingly deny everything that undoes their visions. Following a time jump, the second half of the play dives right into silliness, young love and magic in a way that might be a turnoff for people new to Shakespeare, especially the audience of the Mobile Unit. Surprisingly, even cut down for time and short on cast, Evans’ vision of The Winter’s Tale remains staggeringly clear.

King Leontes of Sicilia is played by Justin Cunningham, who effectively portrays the character’s raging jealousy and pained remorse. Leontes comes under the illusion that his wife Hermione, played by Stacey Yen, has been sleeping with Leontes’ closest friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, played by Nicholas Hoge, and believes that the child in Hermione’s womb belongs to Polixenes.

The king, unable to control his jealousy or listen to the wisdom of his court, imprisons Hermione when Polixenes flees at Camillo’s behest. Camillo is a kind and loyal member of the court and is played with true joy by Sathya Sridharan. At Hermione’s trial, Leontes rejects a vision from the gods that declares her innocent, and so begins the winter of their lives.

Shakespeare’s comedies are mired in mix-ups, mistaken identities, kindly strangers and bizarre, unusual places. The Winter’s Tale is no different. The strangest places in the world are those that hide the deepest secrets for the play’s characters, brought cleverly to life by the tiniest details.

Evans’ decision to make the shepherds of the play, played by Christopher Ryan Grant and Nina Grollman, more in the style of American Midwest shepherds rather than Greek ones, adding a bit of liveliness to the “summer half” of the play, where everything rights itself. Never has a sheep shearing been so catchy or infectious, with music by Heather Christian filling in some of the transitional gaps guaranteed by the cuts needed to facilitate this production.

The use of a cappella renditions of some of the transitional verse in the play works far better than was expected. It brings to mind Classic Stage Company’s tepid production of As You Like It earlier this year, which also attempted to use music as a transitional tool, but came off as more of a gimmick. Rounding out the contours of the world is the puppet design, courtesy of James Ortiz, whose bear — the one in the famous line, “Exit, pursued by a bear” — managed to genuinely give the audience a fright when it first came onstage.

A puppet also plays the character of Mamillius, voiced by Chris Myers, whose charm and downright adorable nature only become crushing when Leontes’ pride causes the gods to smite his only son. The image of the puppet child crumpled in lifelessness proves to be a genuinely haunting image as the first half of the play begins to close.

It is incredibly difficult to judge the Mobile Unit’s The Winter’s Tale without considering the Public Theater’s other Shakespeare offerings, such as the resplendent Shakespeare in the Park and their regular in-house productions of the great playwright’s works. After all, it is easy to worry that the Mobile Unit might have watered down the show in terms of finesse and narrative coherence in order to make it a bare-bones touring production.

It can gladly be reported, however, that nothing of the like was remotely visible in the imagined kingdoms of Sicilia and Bohemia that occupied the Public’s majestic LuEsther Hall. If anything, the lack of a more lush set and light design makes one pay closer attention to the actors’ re-telling of one of the oldest stories in English drama. At one point during the play, Mamillius tells his mother Hermione “a tale for winter,” a dark and mischievous fairy tale.

This show is quite the tale, where a frigid, unhappy winter is followed by a summer brought plainly into view to banish the cold of mistakes.