Though performed by the exact same cast, “The Winter’s Tale,” now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 8, is every bit as delightful as its counterpart, “The Cherry Orchard,” was dreadful.
The single greatest embodiment of this transformation is the American actor Ethan Hawke. As the proto-Bolshevik student in the earlier Chekhov play, Hawke skittered and skulked like a ghost with a case of bedbugs. But in “The Winter’s Tale,” again under director Sam Mendes, Hawke is a man reborn.
Cast as the rogue Autolycus, Hawke steals every scene in the second half of the play as easily as he steals all the other characters’ wallets, accompanying himself on a beat up guitar all the while.
Hawke’s levity provides a modicum of relief from a first half heavy on the great Shakespearean themes. To recap, Sicilian King Leontes (the excellent Brit, Simon Russell Beale) suspects that his wife, Hermione (the equally excellent, and equally British, Rebecca Hall) is cheating on him with his pal, the king of Bohemia, Polixenes (the not-so-good Josh Hamilton).
In short order, Leontes wrongfully accuses his wife publicly, sends her to prison, plots the murder of his friend, kills his son and exiles the child he believes illegitimate to a certain death.
It’s pretty heavy stuff — but the heaviness reminds us exactly why “The Winter’s Tale” is a great play and its counterpart, “The Cherry Orchard,” such a minor work, ultimately.
Where Chekhov was concerned with a group of bored aristocrats who can’t even summon up the energy to save their estate, Shakespeare’s tale is about the Great Issues: jealousy, ambition, betrayal, insanity, redemption.
And in this play, the “Bridge Project” actors seem to be cast properly. Hall, wasted as a prim estate manager in “The Cherry Orchard,” positively blooms as the wronged queen; and Beale, who was the bright spot in “The Cherry Orchard,” is even brighter in a role that calls for humor, pathos, egomania and disgrace.
In short, the kind of night at the theater that only a great Shakespeare play, with a great cast, can deliver.
The Winter’s Tale” runs Feb. 28, March 1, 4–6, 8 at 7:30 pm; and March 7 at 2 pm at BAM Harvey Theater [651 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place, (718) 636-4100].