Winter blasts Macbeth

That Shakespeare in the park works well doesn't come as much of a surprise. After all, it's about the closest we can get to the pleasures of the original outdoor productions in London's Globe Theatre. And though Miller Outdoor Theatre certainly lacks the ambiance of the orange carts and beer stands in the Globe's yard, the venue does allow the opportunity for those in cutoffs to mix with the Hermes scarf set with the single purpose of basking in an evening of the Houston's Shakespeare Festival's A Winter's Tale or Macbeth. Marked by its own dramatic event, this summer's festival suffered the blow of losing the lead actor in both plays, Sheridan Crist, to injury two weeks before opening night. Crist was replaced by a different performer in each play, and the result is two somewhat uneven productions that, nonetheless, prove entertaining with the help of fine supporting actors and stellar design.

On the opening evening, John Arp, Crist's substitute in A Winter's Tale, played Leontes with script in hand. Yet despite this, A Winter's Tale was the better of the productions. One of Shakespeare's later plays, A Winter's Tale focuses on the blinding effect jealousy produces in a mature marriage. Opening on the happy royal party of Leontes and Hermione, king and queen of Sicilia, and Polixenes, king of Bohemia, the play's conflict arises when Leontes interprets Hermione's warm conversation with Polixenes as flirtation. Leontes' jealousy quickly grows unbearable, and he plans to murder Polixenes and cast the pregnant Hermione into the dungeon.

The stage is flanked by platforms that serve as Leontes' bully pulpits and as Hermione's podium from which to plead for justice. Behind the actors hang large, geometric panels, one with the alphabet starting at "C," another with a barren tree thrust through the center of a square. When Hermione appeals to her husband's sense of reason, additional panels outfitted with angels of justice and temperance are flown in from above. This being a particularly Platonic play, with Hermione arguing her case like a divinely inspired attorney, and with its layer of plot repetition with the story's younger characters later in the play, the cerebral set works wonderfully. It's hard to miss, too, that the adulterous "A" is missing from the string of letters, and metaphorically from Leontes' hard evidence.

The most frustrating part of watching Arp act with script in hand was losing the emotional connections between him and Christianne Mays as Hermione. This is, though, precisely the kind of situation that makes theater a fallible human art, and A Winter's Tale isn't the first piece to occasionally limp because of a handicapped lead. Still, Arp succeeds in Leontes' fiery condemnation of both his wife and friend: "He that wears her like a medal about his neck," he spits out while watching the two wander off into the garden. Arp's despair is real once Leontes realizes the consequences of his actions. Mays hits all the marks as a polished actress: her fire is just below her radiant kindness when she warns her raging husband, "'Tis a heretic that burns the fire, not the witch that burns in it."

What separates A Winter's Tale most significantly from the Festival's production of Macbeth are the supporting roles: in Macbeth those roles are often lackluster in both interpretation and performance, but in A Winter's Tale, the supporting roles often carry the heart of the play. One such role is Hermione's court ally, Paulina, played by Bonnie Gallup. In a brief moment, Gallup captures Shakespeare's psychological complexity: she viciously chastises Leontes for the peril he inflicts on his wife and baby daughter, then pities him, and reprimands herself when she sees Leontes is suffering from his own cruelty. Gallup brings a rich voice and a fluid look to her role as she glides along a court floor, punctuating her disgust with a plea for her lady's mercy. As the King of Bohemia, Joel Sandel is both sensitive and commanding; his shock on learning that Leontes suspects him of wooing Hermione is a tense turning point. The strength of this play is in its complete artistry: a provocative set, fine acting, and, of course, the poetry of Shakespeare's language.

Macbeth, as one scholar noted, is the most efficient of Shakespeare's plays. The historic problem in classifying the bloody political drama is whether to term the work a tragedy, since Macbeth falls so quickly from the noble to the base. As the Scottish warrior, James Gale brings to light Macbeth's psychological battle with evil, and it's even possible to believe there is regret for his evil deeds, if not recompense.

Set in the midst of staggered textile panels, this production has a distinctly archaeological feel, something aided by the figures of Celtic beasts and crosses that look as if they're rotting off the set pieces. What's rotting in the plot is the combined ambition of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who set their sights on the crown of Scotland. Appropriately, the witches who prophesy Macbeth's rise to power are part of the landscape, and, clothed in webs of burlap and fog, they collapse back into the stage once their message is delivered.

The worst that could be said about this production of Macbeth is that it's competent, but seldom rises above that level. As Lady Macbeth, Malinda Bailey is faced with hurdling the most familiar Shakespearean role for an actress, and with it, all the idiomatic baggage that's attached. Adding a bit of tenderness to the role, Bailey allows Lady Macbeth to brush with humanity, particularly when she must explain her husband's mad rantings during the banquet celebrating his rise to power. But her delivery of Lady Macbeth's most compelling speeches, her sleepwalking and her attempts to shake her husband out of his haunted visions and guilty babble are less convincing, even dull.

The supporting roles are a wash of ineffective characterization matched by a strange mix of costuming. Young Malcolm, the play's noble element, wears something like a T-shirt when he's not clad in his armor. Played by Robin Burke, Malcolm lacks the fortitude and charisma to stir up the righteousness needed for Macbeth to take his fall. As Banquo, Macbeth's primary advisor, Kent Johnson is best as a bloody ghost, though his speaking scenes lack the sense of torn alliance the character best represents. Exceptional performances often come from the smaller roles, and this is the case with the three witches, whose cackling wickedness is well led by Bonnie Gallup.

It may be a lucky strike that Macbeth isn't the finer of the two productions. Certainly, the story of blind ambition and the psychological punishment of crime is one that's well suited for American sensibilities, but the gift of such a circumstance is that the lesser known A Winter's Tale warms the audience to a Shakespearean play that tempers jealousy with love and perseverance.

A Winter's Tale plays through August 16 and Macbeth plays through August 17 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Concert Drive, Hermann Park, 520-3290.