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If the second half of Melissa Arctic were as fraught, as thrillingly acted, as gorgeously bleak as the first, they’d be hauling audiences out of the Folger Theatre on stretchers. But in his effort to update and untangle The Winter’s Tale, that problematic Shakespearean study of repudiation, regret, and redemption, Craig Wright has created a new conundrum for each one he’s resolved, and Aaron Posner’s splendidly sensitive staging can gloss over only so much. The result—though it’s still damn
striking—is an evening whose two acts fit together no less awkwardly than the words in its curious title.
But oh, that first half is heartbreaking, directed with sharp humor and a sweet, sad lyricism, tightly and intelligently written, layered with metaphor, and dominated by a performance so intensely grieved it must be taking years off Ian Merrill Peakes’ threescore and ten. Peakes is Leonard, a Minnesota barber who corresponds to Shakespeare’s jealous King Leontes, and where Leontes has only a brief speech to hint at the irrationality of the charge that his wife is carrying on an affair with his best friend, Leonard has a double handful of subtly written, slow-building scenes to establish his instability. Wright grounds Leonard’s breakdown in the spiritual withering of an ordinary guy trapped in a world that values success above decency; this is a man who can’t provide for his wife and new baby, a man who’s terrified that that makes him less of a man, and of course it’s his insecurities, not his wife’s imagined infidelities, that destroy both his life and hers. Peakes navigates this potentially hazardous territory with immense care, brushing in the character’s simmering resentment in the first scene and working his way up to and through two shattering outbursts that never seem less than the naked, awful truth. There is, among other marvelous things about Peakes’ performance, a world of torment in Leonard’s eyes—and by the end of the first act, when he’s driven his wife to her death, repudiated their daughter, and generally destroyed everything he once cared about, you mourn his distress as much as the damage he’s done. Peakes is, quite simply, superb.
Holly Twyford’s Mina (Hermione in the original) is no less moving; the part is a great deal less showy, to be sure, but Twyford mines it for all its riches. Mina gets one quiet showpiece of a speech—about sleep and dreams, about the cold outside and the warmth of a kiss, about the comfort of knowing this is the one kiss you’re meant to be completing and the sorrow of tasting the sourness after it’s turned stale—and Twyford makes an elegantly contained elegy of it. Dori Legg and Michael Willis provide sturdy, funny support as an older couple whose own trials seem only to have brought them closer, while Kelly AuCoin and Kyle Thomas round things out nicely as the supposed interloper and the supportive family friend. (Thomas, playing a deaf character, manages to get at least one laugh with a line delivered in sign—which is surely less a testament to the audience’s familiarity with that language than to his dexterity as an actor.) And adding measurably to the first act’s exquisitely moody air is the poised young actress Kiah Victoria as Time, who passes among the others unnoticed, now and then singing one of the minor-key lays that thread through the script like a melancholy subtext.
Then comes intermission, and Melissa Arctic starts all over again. Not entirely, of course, but among the difficulties of The Winter’s Tale is the 16-year leap it takes between its two halves. Wright’s been faithful enough to his template that he’s got to introduce two entirely new characters—Leonard’s now-grown daughter, Melissa (Miriam Liora Ganz), and her unlikely sweetheart, the adult son of Leonard’s imagined rival (Mark Sullivan)—as well as fleshing out another who appears only briefly in Act 1. (David Marks’ sweet-natured hippie, the flower farmer who’s raised Melissa, is just one of the characters whose history sprawls into Melissa Arctic from Wright’s earlier plays.) Shakespeare does much the same, but it’s less of a hurdle in the sprawling Tale than in this efficient two-hour production, which streamlines the proceedings considerably. The shift in focus is more jarring here precisely because Wright has taken such pains to make the audience care about Leonard and Mina; the former doesn’t turn up again until midway through the act, and the latter, naturally, is gone for good—until Wright serves up his version of Shakespeare’s surprise ending, which in its own way is every bit as troublesome as the original.
The Winter’s Tale is the story of an awakening, of the return to life, but where the Bard was content for the wronged Hermione to feign death, Wright makes a point of indicating that Mina really has been killed, so her restoration—through a painting, from which she steps again into life when the right mix of time and regret and forgiveness has been achieved—demands the possibility of a magic Wright hasn’t quite made a case for. It’s not that he hasn’t suggested it: The play’s odd title, it turns out, is the name of an endangered butterfly, and don’t think references to dormancy and rebirth aren’t everywhere in the script. There’s talk of narcissuses and the 12 weeks of chill it takes to force their flowers; talk of a field, flat and white with winter, that’ll be blanketed in blue irises come spring; talk of generations and remembering and forgetting. Writer, director, and cast are skillful enough to make it all seem perfectly natural, and the design team underscores the metaphor with a production of simple, surpassing beauty: Tony Cisek’s set wraps the Folger stage in chill white, with a scattering of unpainted canvases framed in warm wood, and Dan Covey fills the blank rectangles with washes of blue or green, or with projections of bare trees or night stars, just when the moment positively aches for them. Even Kate Turner-Walker’s costumes have an eloquence so understated it verges on the unconscious—in the muted colors here, the lone flower print there. Everything in this production points to the possibility of renewal.
But dormancy and death, ultimately, aren’t the same thing, at least not as we usually perceive them in our world, and try as he may, Wright hasn’t quite made the argument for seeing things another way. The anger and pain of Melissa Arctic’s first act are too epic and real, the conflicts and comedy of the second too quotidian and coincidental—even when Wright makes a quick, inspired gag of Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction—for audiences to follow along as Wright pulls it all together into the notion that love and art can spark an actual resurrection. And that, in the end, is what the divinity-schooled author seems to be after: “It is required you do awake your faith,” a character tells the king just before Hermione’s “revival” in The Winter’s Tale, and the line that follows that one in Shakespeare finds a distinct echo in the mournful song Time offers at the outset of Melissa Arctic and again at its conclusion. “Everything be still,” she commands, as if casting a spell or breathing a prayer. It isn’t the first time someone has seen spiritual or even specifically Christian metaphors in The Winter’s Tale, but whether Wright wants us to believe in a universe in which time really does heal everything—or simply to reflect on ancient ideas about where the divine forever stops and time begins its hand-in-hand walk with entropy—his powers of belief prove stronger than those of his audience. CP