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A CurtainUp Review
Melissa Arctic

By Rich See

Everything be still. Can everything be perfectly still?
---Kiah Victoria singing as Time in the opening sequence

Kiah Victoria and Holly Twyford
K. Victoria and H. Twyford

Folger Theatre's world premiere of Melissa Arctic is touching, engaging, funny, and inspiring in its message of love and forgiveness -- a special little gem for Washington audiences to share.

Billed as a re-imagining of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale the story is a fairly straightforward retelling with no additional plot devices being added. This might be a disappointment to some, but if you look at all the production's strong points, Melissa Arctic is a wonderful offering from a rising voice in contemporary American Theatre. For playwright Craig Wright, Melissa Arctic is the final play in his string of works about the fictional town of Pine City, Minnesota and also a way of re-working Shakespeare's tale to highlight the healing power of art.

Just in case you aren't familiar with Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, here is a quick plot summary. King Leontes, ruler of Sicilia, goes strangely insane and maliciously accuses his wife, Hermione, of adultery with his closest friend, Polixenes. Through heart break, Queen Hermione dies and their recently born daughter is smuggled out of Sicilia and eventually raised by a kindly woodsman. Many years later through a series of misadventures all the key players are brought back together when the daughter, named Perdita, falls in love with Florizell, the son of Polixenes. Through the love of the children, the adults are reunited and the family of King Leontes is brought back together. Shakespeare's tale has always been a bit of a problem to classify and define. The first act is a tragedy, the second a comedy. The re-emergence of the dead queen can be looked at as an analogy of the re-emergence of love, it can be looked as a miracle in the Greek mythological sense that a statue comes to life, or it can be looked at as an extravagant 20 year plot devised by the Queen to hide herself away until the moment that her child and her husband are returned to her. Ultimately, it's less about a believable plot and more about the art of storytelling, hence its title The Winter's Tale.

Playwright Wright sets the first act of in his tiny, snow covered, mythical Pine City, Minnesota. His Leonard Mattson (played by Ian Merrill Peakes) is a man who goes jealously insane and accuses his wife Mina (Holly Twyford) and his best friend Paul Anderson (Kelly AuCoin) of sleeping together. In a moment of delusion, he even begins to believe that Paul is the father of his six-month-old daughter, Melissa. Unlike King Leontes, Leonard's unstable mental state is made apparent almost from the moment the play begins. One minute he is ranting about Paul's ex-wife (who abandoned Paul and their son Ferris) and the next he is suggesting that he and Paul should both abandon their lives and runaway together to Canada and never return. He's a man obviously dealing with some major issues and Wright eventually shows us that Leonard's insecure mental state has been fragile most of his life. When Leonard viciously acts out on his rage, through a strange twist he inadvertently causes tremendous tragedy and pain for himself and his loved ones. Upon his demand to have his daughter Melissa removed from his sight, she is taken to a kindly ex-hippie who owns an herb farm in the woods of Minnesota near the town of Farmington. End of the starkly realistic and stirring act one.

For the second act, Craig Wright has created, while not a comedy, a much lighter-toned drama that is somewhat of a musical. Now in the spring/summer of Farmington, the entire mood of the play is changed as the character of Time informs us of what has occurred over the past 18 years. It's at this point that some people will be excited and others will be disappointed, just as in Shakespeare's Tale. Having pulled you in to what seems like a riveting family drama, Wright now changes gears entirely and begins the second act with a musical number -- in this instance not with the character of Time, but with the entire cast. And so Wright asks the audience to simply let go of its emotional attachment to act one and begin to accept where things are in act two. It's an interesting analogy to what one often has to do in life -- simply let go and move on. Which just happens to be one of the larger messages of Wright's play.

Director Aaron Posner has pulled together a terrific cast and crew of designers. His act one is cold and raw, act two is light and happy. The entire staging seems like a blank slate upon which Time, portrayed by 12 year old Kiah Victoria, can create a story. As Ms. Victoria begins to sing in the opening sequence the stage warms up and as she walks around the frozen cast members you are immediately drawn into the story. And Posner has created a story that is told almost languidly, nothing is ever rushed, though the pace never seems sluggish or slow. Even set changes are done in a relaxed manner. When a change is complete, the actors freeze, the lights come up slightly for a brief moment, and then the lights are brought to full power and the action begins. It's a subtle method, but one that conveys the wonderful slow movement of time. And just to highlight the aspects of time, the character of Time is a constant on stage. Wherever the action is, there is Ms. Victoria, sitting and watching, but never intruding or obstructing the other actors. Mr. Posner shows a wonderful subtle sensibility for storytelling.

The clean austerity of Tony Cisek's set is both cold and warm. With blue hued lights and empty dark brown, wood frames scattered across the white washed walls it feels like you are looking at a family photo album. And indeed, the frames are used constantly, yet subtlety, to reflect at us, whatever is needed at the moment -- whether to show the cold barrenness of act one, the falling snow in Pine City, the forests of Farmington, or the ever present spirit of Mina Mattson. Lighting Designer Dan Covey takes this starkness and works it equally well for his lighting uses, with blue hues to highlight the coldness of the first act and then a wider spectrum of colors to bring out the warmth of the second.

Craig Wright's original music and lyrics add a wonderful dimension to the play. The music is simply beautiful and, much like a movie soundtrack, pulls you in to the action on stage. You wish the Folger Theatre was selling it on CD at intermission. James Sugg's sound design and piano playing is again -- like so much of the design aspects of this production -- so subtle that you hardly realize he is on stage throughout the play. And the fact that the new-born baby never cries shows us how good natured Melissa Mattson/Willoughby is ultimately going to become.

The entire cast shines. Kiah Victoria as Time is incredibly composed and serene for someone so young. Ian Merrill Peakes as the unstable and ultimately remorseful Leonard is compelling as you see his quick descent into madness and he pulls at your emotional strings with his desire for forgiveness. Kelly AuCoin is believable as the driven and hard working Paul Anderson who ultimately has an extremely rocky relationship with his song, Ferris. You wish the two had more stage time together to show fuller character development. Holly Twyford is sympathetic, yet strong, as the confused Mina trying to make the best of her failing marriage. Mina never ventures into victimhood, and Twyford brings out the character's qualities that make everyone continually tell Leonard -- much to his dismay -- that he is "the luckiest man in the world" for marrying her. David Marks is both funny and tender as Alec Willoughby, the happy ex-hippy who takes Melissa in and raises her as his own. By providing the herb farmer with a Zen-like philosophy, Craig Wright eliminates the need for any character development as to Alec's feelings about the reuniting of Melissa and Leonard. Mark Sullivan and Miriam Liora Ganz make lovely romantic teens, Ferris Anderson and Melissa Willoughby. Kyle Thomas brings out the meekness in Carl Kuchenmeister who seems to be everyone's whipping post. The character of Cindy Linda undergoes the most spiritual growth among the play's characters, something Dori Legg brings out extremely well, as Cindy is the wizened one to bring everyone to a place of forgiveness and peace in their lives. Michael Willis as the comedic and tragic Lindy is terrific moving from supportive husband to protector in the blink of an eye. His and James Sugg's fishermen characterizations are one of the play's funniest moments, especially with their trademark Minnesotan accents.

Melissa Arctic is far from perfect. The first act's stark power overshadows the second act's romanticism and makes it seem charming, but unsophisticatedly naïve. At times it chooses melodrama over character development and borders on daytime soap opera-like sensibility, which is unfortunately highlighted by names like Pine City. And the ending is less satisfactory than Shakespeare's Tale, considering Wright wants to show the healing power of art. One understands the idea that is implied, however there must be a better way to bring Mina Mattson on stage. All that said, this production and the play itself shine in so many aspects that Melissa Arctic is a lovely tale during this winter season.

Melissa Arctic
by Craig Wright
Directed by Aaron Posner
with Kiah Victoria, Kelly AuCoin, Ian Merrill Peakes, Holly Twyford, Kyle Thomas, Dori Legg, Michael Willis, James Sugg, David Marks, Miriam Liora Ganz, Mark Sullivan
Scenic Designer: Tony Cisek
Lighting Designer: Dan Covey
Costume Designer: Kate Turner-Walker
Properties Designer: Shannon Thomas Kennedy
Musical Director/Sound Designer: James Sugg
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street SE
Telephone: 202-544-7077
TUE - THU & SUN @ 7:30, FRI - SAT @ 8, SAT - SUN @ 2; $30 - $48
Opening 01/23/04, closing 02/29/04
Reviewed by Rich See based on 02/06/04 performance

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