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Stark Naked Theatre Does Right By Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale

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The set-up: The following observation will come as no surprise, nor is it original, but it still must be stated: compared to Shakespeare, all other playwrights are pinched and parochial.

The wit of Stoppard, the cosmic howl from Beckett, the bitchy laceration of Albee, the epic family squabble from O'Neill - all seem quite minor when placed next to the Bard. No matter the genre, his work rings the truest, is always the freshest, and goes right to the heart.

The great secret, of course, is that his plays are to be seen, not read. On the page, you can trip over yourself with those knotty Jacobean phrases with their antique vocabulary and equally strange syntax. But put his poetry in the hands of actors who know when to pause, when to declaim, when to massage his words, when to make a telling gesture, and there's nothing like it in the world. Everything becomes clear. Shakespeare is the world. He doesn't skimp on its beauties and wonders, or its terrors and evils. The astonishing breadth of our existence is all here, waiting to be unleashed.

Under its sure, loving guidance, Stark Naked Theatre not only unleashes Shakespeare's complex fairy tale, The Winter's Tale, but sets it soaring. Branded for centuries as one of his "problem" plays, when you experience it as imagined by Stark Naked, there's no problem to it at all.

The execution: One of Shakespeare's richest works, Tale abounds with dark sexual overtones and jealousy run amok during the wintry court scenes in Sicila, then completely sails into pastoral romance for Acts III and IV, set in sunny Bohemia 16 years later, where Shakespeare beguiles with some of his most inspired love lyrics. All is set right in Act V when the Bohemians and Sicilians intermingle, putting an end to the cold by ushering in springtime's redemption and where lost loves are reunited. There are still clouds, however, this being Shakespeare, for while time might heal wounds, scars remain.

Leontes, king of Sicilia (Philip Lehl), and Polixenes, king of Bohemia (Luis Galindo), are boyhood friends. "Twinn'ed lambs...that did frisk in the sun and bleat...to be boy eternal." His stay over, Polixenes yearns to return to Bohemia. Leontes can't convince him to remain, but when Leontes' wife Hermione (Tawny Stephens), very much pregnant, entreats him with kisses and tender embraces, he relents.

Before you can say, Othello and Iago, Leontes suspects the worst between them. "Too hot, too hot," he cries. He spins out of control, hardening with jealousy, and accuses faultless Hermione of infidelity.

Accompanied by some of Shakespeare's most potent sexual images ("his pond fished by his next neighbor" and "gates opened against their will"), rampaging Leontes imprisons his wife, conspires to have Polixenes killed, and then later, when Hermione has given birth to a daughter, orders the baby taken far away to be left to die. Even the Oracle at Delphos who proclaims Hermione's innocence will not assuage Leontes' terribly misguided judgment.

But when young son Mamillius (Shunté Lofton) dies of grief and Hermione's death is reported, Leontes is stunned into realizing the horrible consequences of his actions. He will mourn forever, crying daily at their graves. Stalwart lady-in-waiting Paulina (Courtney Lomelo), perhaps knowing more than she lets on, is given rein to scorn and mock him.

Meanwhile, baby Perdita has been rescued by a kindly Shepherd (Philip Lehl) and his dim but generous son Clown (Matt Lents). Right before this scene occurs, is the most famous stage direction ever, "Exit, pursued by a bear," where court toady Antigonus (Mr. Galindo), charged with abandoning the child, is chased off stage, saving the baby by himself being devoured. It's comic and dreadful at once, and Stark Naked wisely uses sound effects to portray the creature.

Now begins Tale's sunny part, with its sheep shearing festival, bounteous word images of flowers, and the two young lovers in rhapsodic transport. In cyclical fashion, Polixenes' son, Prince Florizel (Matt Lents), disguising his royal lineage, has fallen hard for shepherdess Perdita (Shunte Lofton), the abandoned daughter of Leontes. Though but a peasant, she is praised for her grace and deportment.

Into this crowd of rustics, enters one of Shakespeare's immortal characters, the father of all thieves, Autolycus (Mike Sims). Randy and without scruples, "a snapper up of unconsidered trifles," he steals laundry and anything else he can purloin, sells bawdy songs, and pulls out his hot goodies - along with a red bra - from his overcoat like the old vaudevillian Banana Man from The Ed Sullivan Show. In an inspired touch, the songs he peddles are CDs. An incomparable life-force, Sims brings life to low-life.

Even in Bohemia's bucolic paradise, there are snakes. Polixenes and Camillo (Jeff McMorrough), who had saved the king from Leontes' edict 16 years ago, put a quick end to Florizel and Perdita's wedding plans, threatening them with torture and unspeakable horrors. In furious action, the lovers escape, the king follows, as does Autolycus, back to Sicilia, where more marvels await.

As you can tell by the synopsis, the nimble cast of eight portray many characters in Stark Naked's "bare-bones" rendition. It's a neat pairing. Lehl is both Perdita's father and her step-father; Galindo is Bohemia's king and the hapless Antigonus chased by that bear; Lents is ardent lover Florizel and then, with quick change of hat, the silly Clown, Perdita's step-brother. Lomelo, a staunch Paulina, later appears as a gum-chewing yokel at the fair. The others assume the numerous courtiers, jailors, and nurses that populate Tale's wonderful world.

Whether clown or king, counselor or pickpocket, each one etches his character in the round. They work together as as ensemble with fine tuning. Lehl deserves our thanks, thrice. One of Houston's most admired interpreters of Shakespeare, here he directs his first Shakespearean production, which he does with flare and an inspiring touch. Not daunting enough, he then had to step in at the very last minute when actor David Wald, playing both Leontes and the Shepherd, had to withdraw. Lehl juggles all three hats with jaw-dropping precision. Is there any line in the Bard he can not make clear and easily comprehended? His invisible craft at creating an emotion, showing it to us without fuss, and moving us to tears as he does so, is art at its most sublime. One of his many wonders is how much fun he has while acting. His love is infectious, and the others in the cast - and we, too, in the audience - take up his mission. How easy Shakespeare sounds in their capable hands.

Although the Bohemia scenes are enlivened by Sims's antics, the radiantly played love scenes between Lents and Lofton, and a warmer touch to the lighting from David Gipson, there's not much visual demarcation between Clint Allen's sunny setting and the cold whiteness that overshadows Sicilia. Plastic sheeting encases the columns and hangs overhead like an Arctic cave, the floor is cracked and painted white like an ice floe, and projections that evoke icicles and frost move on the rear screen. Very chilly indeed in Leontes' capital. Bohemia gets a background projection of Peter Max-like hippy flowers, but the icicle sheeting remains. Shouldn't spring be more in evidence? Shakespeare thought so, and says as much in all the references to nature's bounty, verdant sunshine, and plenty of dancing and singing.

Tale ends with Shakespeare at his most incomparable. Master craftsman, he gives us a transformation scene of the utmost delicacy, yet fraught with emotional wallop, as the "statue" of wronged queen Hermione, presumed dead for the last 16 years, comes to life to bless her wayward husband.

Building up the scene's tension, he withholds the animation as the court, itself frozen in wonder, marvels at the likeness. Daughter Perdita wants to hold its hand, but is warned the paint's still wet. Leontes, chiding himself for being more stone than the statue, sees a glint in the eye and a passing breath. He's told it's the sculptor's art. "What fine chisel could ever yet cut breath?" he asks in astonishment, gazing in rapture upon his wife's form. He notices the wrinkles on the statue, as if it's the very image of his wife now grown older. When the tension is at its highest, Paulina, the queen's lady-in-waiting and the king's conscience for these many years, commands the statue to move. "Music, awake her," she intones.

Mysterious new-agey chords envelop us, as Hermione descends from her pedestal very much alive. Is this sorcery, or has Hermione been in hiding all these years, watched over by faithful Paulina? Shakespeare ends his tale with sly ambiguity. Death and rebirth swirl through the play. Forgiveness and atonement are timeless. Winter's harshness may yield to spring's youth, but, even so, another winter's not far behind.

The verdict: Alchemy of a different sort occurs at Stark Naked. Time stands still. Masterfully edited, not one scene drags or goes on too long - not always the way with Shakespeare - and before you know it, The Winter's Tale has been told. The master magician has enchanted us in what seems like the blink of an eye. Shakespeare winks at us, and we wink right back. Stark Naked knows exactly how to wink.

The Winter's Tale runs through May 16 at Stark Naked Theatre, Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. Purchase tickets online at starknakedtheatre.com or call 832-866-6514. $10-$20.

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