"The Winter's Tale," currently alternating with Al Pacino in a powerful "Merchant of Venice" in Central Park, is really two stories wrapped in a confusing title and a happy ending. The first is a horrific one about the mad jealousy of the king of urbane Sicilia, infanticide and the death of his wrongly accused queen. And that's the easy part.
The second half, set 16 years later, is a pastoral romp in bucolic Bohemia, full of bumpkin business and young lovers and - suddenly - a miraculous reunion back in Sicilia. After such massive emotional flip-flops, this is a resolution that requires forgiveness from the audience, not just the characters, to make morally whole.
At its best - for example, in Sam Mendes' staging last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music - Shakespeare's strange, unwieldy and fantastical late comedy can turn into a ravishing mystical romance. At its worst, the ending can feel like another play altogether.
To its credit, director Michael Greif's production does keep the uneasy halves together. Mostly, however, this is a capable, less than marvelous evening - one of those routine nights at free Shakespeare in the Park when the summertime pleasures of the outdoor Delacorte Theater are at least as compelling as the stage.
Greif ("Next to Normal") imagines both courts as exotic 19th-century Indian-Asian fantasylands with poetic use of fire. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is so lucid as the jealous king that we almost believe - if never forgive - his delusion. Linda Emond has a lyric honesty as his poor wife and Marianne Jean-Baptiste almost steals the whole evening with her smart, beautifully spoken, complicated portrayal of loyal friend Paulina.
The experimental resident company lets us enjoy character-veterans in back-to-back plays - especially Max Wright as the Prince of Arragon in "Merchant," the shepherd here. Jesse L. Martin is more convincing here as the King of Bohemia than his goofy Gratiano in "Merchant." Jesse Tyler Ferguson has masterly timing as virtuoso clowns in both. Heather Lind is again lovely, this time as the long-lost princess, and Hamish Linklater is far more persuasive as the comic rogue Autolycus than as a romantic hero in "Merchant."
But Greif lets him go overboard, even miming sex with (adorable) puppet sheep in their sweet pop-up lawns. Elsewhere, the stylized Asian puppetry is clunky and clichéd, and the tragic royal infant is so fake it seems like a joke.
WHAT "The Winter's Tale"
WHERE Delacorte Theater, off 81st Street at Central Park West, Central Park
INFO Free, 212-539-8750; shakespeareinthepark.org
BOTTOM LINE Just routine