Christopher Reeve is trying to leap from Superman to Shakespeare in one easy lesson in the Shakespeare Festival's new production of "The Winter's Tale," but his performance demonstrates he still has a lot to learn about the Bard.
"The Winter's Tale" opened Tuesday at Joseph Papp's off-Broadway Public Theater under the inventive direction of James Lapine with a stellar cast headed by Mandy Patinkin, Diane Venora, Alfre Woodard and Reeve. It is the eighth in Papp's unprecedented production marathon that will see the staging of all 36 Shakespeare plays in a three-year period.So far the productions have been uneven and in some cases controversial, but "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Coriolanus" faired well with audiences and only one offering - "Julius Caesar" -was truly abysmal.
"The Winter's Tale," the last of Shakespeare's plays, is worth seeing because the play is rarely done and this is a passable reading of it. It is a sort of "warmed-over Othello" with a redemptive rather than tragic ending.
So far in his marathon, Papp has cast a lot of actors and actresses better known for their Broadway, film and television talents than their grasp of the Shakespearean style or the cadence of his poetry.
It's one way of learning how to become a Shakespearean actor but it hardly takes the place of years of apprenticeship in minor roles with Britain's Royal Shakespeare Theater or the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare company.
Reeve sees his role of Polixenes, the Bohemian king accused of adultery with his best friend's wife, as a good place to start because "it's not too demanding."
"It's what they call a `pivotal role' but most of the time he's offstage," the actor best known as Superman in the movies said in a pre-opening interview. "I didn't come to Shakespeare festival to grandstand. I wanted to do something ensemble and become acquainted with Shakespeare that way."
He makes a handsome, boyish Polixenes, charming enough to attract the attention of Queen Hermione of Sicily (Venora), wife of his best friend, King Leontes (Patinkin), but there is a woodenness in Reeve's physical movements and rendition of his lines that is still to be overcome.
He also needs some coaching in projecting his voice beyond the limits of the Public's thrust stage.
The play about suspected betrayal, revenge, loss and reconciliation rides on the character of Leontes, with which Patinkin wrestles with intermittent success.
He is an actor best known for stormy emotional scenes and he is most impressive when Leontes rages against Hermione for imagined transgressions, less effective when he is demonstrating remorse for causing the death of his wife and daughter.
Lovely Diane Venora is too sappy as Hermione and needs to give the role a more pointed personality. Alfre Woodard is outstanding as a shrewish Paulina, Hermione's friend and defender.
Lapine, director-writer of Broadway's "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Into the Woods" reportedly threw out his original production concept after four weeks of rehearsal and only three days before the first public previews. Instead of an elaborate masquerade interpolated as an opening scene, we get a harlequin handing out costumes and props.
This simplification runs throughout the play but does not deprive it of certain richly conceived scenes such as the sprightly spring festival and the final dream tableau which freezes the characters in a swirl of snow.