- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2004

Question: What do you get when you take a really weird old play and spruce it up? Answer: A really weird new play. That’s essentially what we have with “Melissa Arctic,” a brand-new drama being given its world-premiere performances at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre through Feb. 29. Based on “The Winter’s Tale,” William Shakespeare’s late problem-romance, Craig Wright’s update transports the Bard’s strangely disjointed vision to contemporary, snowbound Pine City, Minn.

Shakespeare’s original introduces us to the mythical Sicilian King Leontes who, like the insanely jealous Othello, flips out when he imagines that his wife, Queen Hermione, has been getting a little something on the side, courtesy of their old pal King Polixenes of Bohemia. In short order, the queen dies from a broken heart, and their infant daughter is carried into exile by a courtier who is then conveniently chased off by a bear, leaving no clue as to where the little girl has gone.

After a pastoral interlude in which the now-grown daughter (Perdita) falls in love with the son of Polixenes (Florizel), everyone has a reunion of sorts. Queen Hermione even returns, emerging somehow from a statue. Plotwise, this was not one of Shakespeare’s award-winning efforts.

Some critics have accused “The Winter’s Tale” of being two plays — a tragedy and a comedy — smashed into one. Playwright Wright has chosen to run with this dramatic paradox, and “Melissa Arctic” comes as close as anything can to making the whole concept seem coherent.

“Melissa” still could use some tweaking, particularly during the awkward opening scene of Act I. The production’s added music is largely forgettable, too. Yet Mr. Wright has managed against all odds to transform Shakespeare’s creaky characters into easily recognizable and largely sympathetic modern types. If the ultimate denouement of the play seems at times a little facile, well, blame it on Shakespeare’s declining years.

The cast of this production, nicely paced and directed by Aaron Posner, invests considerable emotional capital into each character. As uneasy friends Leonard (Leontes) and Paul (Polixenes), Ian Merrill Peakes and Kelly AuCoin create over-the-top dramatic tension early on that serves as the drama’s mainspring. Meanwhile, as their inadvertently mutual love interest, Mina (Hermione), Holly Twyford is near-perfect in her brief, intense role as a simple, attractive country girl who finds herself in the middle of a maelstrom.

Taking over in the second act as young lovers Melissa (Perdita) and Ferris (Florizel), Miriam Liora Ganz and Mark Sullivan capture the perfect amount of romantic chemistry and youthful naivete. They are at once likable and believable, instantly transforming the somber and violent first act into something more akin to a bittersweet romantic comedy.

The supporting cast is strong as well, particularly Kyle Thomas as deaf sidekick Carl and Michael Willis (Lindy) and James Sugg (Mike). Mr. Willis and Mr. Sugg, along with Kiah Victoria (Time), also play sidesplitting dual roles as ice fishermen and social commentators in one of the funniest narrations of offstage action one is likely to hear or see. David Marks warmly inhabits the hippie consciousness of Alec, Melissa’s substitute Dad, and Dori Legg is a stabilizing force as the lonely but dedicated artist Cindy, in whose gallery the play draws to a close.

Perhaps the weakest spot in this production is the use of the character Time, a device that also appears in the original. While Miss Victoria is a capable actress and has a charmingly youthful singing voice, she is frequently relegated to uselessly staring at the characters onstage. As in life, if Time appeared only when necessary, this production would be much stronger.

**1/2

WHAT: “Melissa Arctic,” by Craig Wright at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre.

WHERE: Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 29

TICKETS: $25 to $48.

PHONE: 202/544-7077

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