Even though it's set in modern-day, small-town Minnesota, Craig Wright's enchanting Melissa Arctic is an ideal play to be making its world premiere at Washington's Folger Theatre.
That's because the theater is in the Folger Shakespeare Library, and Wright adapted Melissa Arctic from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.
One of Shakespeare's late romances, The Winter's Tale has always been hampered by several problems, chief among them a 16-year gap in time and a statue that comes to life in the end. Wright doesn't attempt to solve all the play's problems (in fact, he adds two years to the time gap). But he has come up with a truly charming, updated approach that retains and even heightens Shakespeare's commentary on the dangers of jealousy and the redemptive powers of art.
Melissa Arctic is part of Wright's series of plays set in the fictitious town of Pine City, Minn. (Two previous plays in this series, Pavilion and Orange Flower Water, received early productions at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and Pavilion was also produced at Everyman Theatre last season.)
Like the earlier plays in the series, Melissa Arctic deals with love and loss. Lenny (Pine City counterpart to Shakespeare's Leontes) becomes convinced that his wife, Mina (Shakespeare's Hermione), has not only had an affair with his best friend, Paul (Polixenes), but that Paul is the father of her baby.
Under Aaron Posner's affecting direction, actor Ian Merrill Peakes makes Lenny's jealous hysteria frighteningly credible. It's easy to believe that this man's violent tendencies toward others - and himself - would land him in a psychiatric institution. One of the flaws in Wright's script, however, is that, like its Shakespearean forebear, it fails to adequately prepare the audience for Lenny's eventual change of heart.
Almost all of Wright's characters have counterparts in Shakespeare's text, but Wright also makes enough alterations to advance his own thematic agenda. Hermione's loyal attendant, Paulina, for instance, is transformed into an eminently sensible painter named Cindy (Dori Legg), whose chef d'oeuvre is a portrait of Mina (played by Holly Twyford as a sweet-natured paragon of innocence and devotion). This portrait is so crucial to the play's plot and themes that set designer Tony Cisek uses huge, empty picture frames as his central scenic motif.
Wright also makes alterations that modernize Shakespeare's humor. For example, he transforms the shepherd who raises Lenny and Cindy's baby, Melissa (Miriam Liora Ganz), into an ex-hippie (exuberantly played by David Marks).
The playwright even manages to work in two of Shakespeare's more troublesome devices - the bear in the famed stage direction: "Exit, pursued by bear" - and the character of Time, the Chorus. Indeed, Wright's handling of Time is one of the most ingenious aspects of his script.
Portrayed by a young girl (the wonderously gifted Kiah Victoria), Time begins the play with a song - one of several composed by Wright for this play-with-music. She sings the opening song while wandering through a group of actors who are frozen in time, until her presence brings them to life. She then haunts most of the subsequent action, an ever-present reminder that time progresses, no matter what, and, in many cases, it also has the power to heal.
Wright's treatment of Time is the best example of the impressive imagination he brings to one of Shakespeare's most magical, but problematic, plays. And, though he's unable to overcome all of The Winter's Tale's pesky difficulties - such as excessive exposition - he succeeds admirably in mining added meaning from the source material, especially in terms of the links connecting love, life and art.
It's no mean feat to go head to head with the greatest writer in the English language, but Wright is such an inventive playwright and director Posner's production is so moving, you come away contemplating how lovely it would be to see Melissa Arctic performed in repertory with The Winter's Tale.