A Shakespearean `Sad Tale' Told With Fantasy and Wonder. THEATER REVIEW. New Yorkers reach another rung in staging all the Bard's plays

SHAKESPEARE'S late romances pose a challenge for directors and producers, since they combine humor and drama with an extravagance of imagination that stretches theatrical resources to their limits. Challenges are the meat and potatoes of an all-inclusive Shakespeare marathon, though, and the New York Shakespeare Festival - heading toward the one-quarter mark in its run-through of all the Bard's plays - has done reasonably well by ``The Winter's Tale,'' a far-ranging fable of jealousy among kings, tension and abandonment within families, and overdue repentance by a monarch who often seems beyond redemption. The production integrates star-quality performances by Mandy Patinkin and Christopher Reeve with a sense of fantasy and wonder that's effectively, if not excitingly, maintained.

The evening starts with an unexpected moment that sets the tone for the three hours to follow: a bit of Act 2 dialogue that takes on new resonance when transposed to the beginning of Act 1 as a prologue. Queen Hermione asks her young son to tell a story. The boy asks, ``Merry or sad shall 't be?'' and then ignores his mother's request for merriment by saying that ``A sad tale's best for winter'' and offering ``one of sprites and goblins.'' Members of the cast then file across the stage to receive the trappings of the roles they're about to assume, calling attention to the play's artificiality with a directness that would suit any avant-garde company interested in theater as spectacle rather than illusion.

What follows is more conservative, for the most part, than this opening gambit might indicate. James Lapine, who directed the ``Tale,'' strives more for clarity and consistency than for inventive new approaches. He meets the goal of clarity with ease, and if consistency sometimes eludes him, it's less because he indulges in flights of fancy than because he allows different styles to clash during the course of the evening.

The bittersweet whimsy of the prologue, for instance, is often forgotten even as an undertone - especially during King Leontes's emotional outbursts in Act 1 and the rogue Autolycus's rowdy Act 2 shenanigans. And the finale, which brings the apparently dead Hermione back to life, is handled with a strung-out sentimentality that's not prefigured by anything in the production. Yet this ``Winter's Tale'' has plenty of engrossing moments to offer. During the first three acts, the best of these involve Mr. Patinkin as Leontes, the king who mistakenly questions his wife's fidelity when she's a little too good at persuading a departing guest to prolong his visit.

Early in the play, Patinkin manages to seethe with visible passion just below a deceptively controlled demeanor; later he makes the king's repentance as touching as it is credible. As the calmer King Polixenes, who eventually has his own emotional rapids to navigate, Mr. Reeve stays in Patinkin's shadow at first - it's a hard shadow to avoid - but shines impressively in the second act when Polixenes comes into his own as a character.

Other strong moments are provided by Diane Venora, a stage and screen actress of quiet but always unmistakable authority, who plays Hermione; and Alfre Woodard as Paulina, a principled schemer. James Olson is eminently convincing as Camillo, Leontes's henchman. Other important roles are skillfully handled.

Despite its consistency problems and a few slack moments along the way, ``The Winter's Tale'' makes a respectable addition to the marathon and augurs well for the romantic ``Cymbeline'' that's slated to follow it on the Public Theater stage. My favorites of the marathon so far have been ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' which began the series, and the adventurous ``Coriolanus'' with Christopher Walken.

In all, though, I liked the ``Tale'' better than its immediate predecessor, Gerald Freedman's production of ``Love's Labor's Lost,'' with which many reviewers fell heartily in love. It had some smart performances - most notably by William Converse-Roberts, a wonderful actor with a flair for intimate moments, and Richard Libertini, making the most of his talent for sly humor. If it was a likable evening, however, it was also a very conventional one, bringing lots of suavity yet few fresh insights to Shakespeare's text.

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