Stark Naked’s ‘Winter’s Tale’

10 May

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By JOHN DeMERS

As most of us understand by this point, William Shakespeare turned out a whole bunch of plays in several different categories – tragedies, comedies and histories being the best known. And for the most part, he was careful to color inside the lines. In his bizarrely affecting The Winter’s Tale, however, Shakespeare seems to delight in tossing crayon strokes in all sorts of unexpected directions. In that light, it’s even more unexpected how engaging the play can be.

By staging Winter’s Tale in a modern and minimalist way, Houston’s own Stark Naked Theatre Company is taking on one of my fondest theater memories: seeing the play at the Bard’s Stratford-on-Avon during the bicentennial summer of 1976. I remember knowing nothing about the play when I took my seat for that matinee, yet feeling tears fill my eyes as the ending neared. It is a strange show, no doubt about it – an extended (and now more intense than ever) stretch of tragedy, a brief spurt of comedy that’s actually funny, and then a flourish of crystalline poetry at the end that should affect almost anyone the way it first affected me.

Though the production that opened last night at Spring Street Studios is impressively polished, there is an intriguing backstory. Just days before the show was to open, Stark Naked co-founder Philip Lehl was the director and another accomplished actor had the lead role, Leontes. When that actor felt he had to drop out, Lehl felt he had to step in. The opening was pushed back a week so he could learn the many, many speeches, and co-founder Kim Tobin-Lehl (a respected acting coach) stepped in to help her husband and the rest of the cast prepare. None of this backstage drama (or trauma) is evident when you’re watching Winter’s Tale.

The story is one of the darkest imaginable: an ancient king decides, on very little evidence, that his wife is being unfaithful with his best friend. That “other man,” also a king, manages to escape back to his own land, but the wife and the son die and a newborn daughter is sent far away – to that other kingdom. Years pass. The first king, Leontes, painfully aware of his own recklessness, does little but mourn his life away. But that life, though mourned, awaits him with healing, with a kind of miracle, in the future all the same.

In giving us a thoroughly satisfying, believable and ultimately touching Leontes, Lehl gets solid help onstage from Los Angeles-based actor Luis Galindo as best friend Polixenes – and since virtually all the actors take on several roles, also as a servant who carries the near-mythical baby to that distant land. Women are an important part of the mix, even when they’re playing men – and that means Tawny Stephens as doomed (but innocent) wife Hermione and Courtney Lomelo as Paulina, a woman who seems to be orchestrating the sad king’s salvation. Truly eye-opening is the work of young Shunte Lofton, who’s still studying acting at U of H. She convinces us first as the king’s affectionate son but ultimately as his banished daughter, whose own coming into love helps move the metaphorical calendar from winter toward spring.

With flawless comic timing, the rest of the cast takes on role after role, often changing a hat or a coat in front of us to mark the change, then emerging as an entirely different person. The delights in this seem to never end, whether it’s Jeff McMorrough as Camillo, Mike Sims as Autolycus or Matt Lents as Florizel. In one of the play’s most entertaining touches, Shakespeare’s often-used lower-class “rustics” are served up with Texas redneck accents. Like so many things about Stark Naked’s Winter’s Tale, it doesn’t seem like it ought to work. But it does.

Photos: (top) Lofton and Lehl, (bottom) Lofton and Lents, by Gabriella Nissen

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