FORT WORTH -- Something is rotten in the state of Sicilia.
But that's okay, because there is nothing like a slight case of misplaced vengeance to propel a good plot, as it does in Stolen Shakespeare Guild's current production of the Bard's The Winter's Tale at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.
The story of this late play, that is an early version of what we now call a "dramedy," deals with ancient King Leontes (Alan Walker), who is the sovereign of Sicilia -- which might just as well be a galaxy far away, given how loosely the script plays with actual geography. He seems to be a well-meaning monarch but, like Othello, he allows himself to be consumed by jealousy. His green-eyed rage leads him to banish his queen, Hermione (Jessica Dahl-Colaw) and the newborn child he believes to be another's.
The consequences of these first act missteps are dire, and the second act (the play was written in five acts, but is performed in two here) is devoted to trying to put the pieces back together. The Stolen Shakespeare folks have done the audience a great service by providing a synopsis in the program that divides the plot into three distinct parts: tragedy, comedy and resolution. You might want to read just the first two sections (which will especially help you through the opaquely written first act), and then let the players surprise you with the finish.
On the whole, this play is much more about plot than Shakespeare's character-driven works, like Hamlet and Macbeth. True to its title, it has the feel of a story told to a gathering of friends around a fireplace on a chilly night. Much of the conclusion, for example, is delivered as narration from a minor character, giving it the air of someone wrapping up a really good yarn.
This production is like many others this troupe has presented. The casting is highly uneven, mixing some sharp, insightful characterizations with others that are stiff with the greenness of inexperience. The costuming, by Lauren Morgan, is stunningly good in some cases, while other outfits have a bottom-of-the-trunk look. The set is hardly a set, just some rocks scattered around the stage. Also, the lighting at Friday's opening night was erratic and distracting.
So, when you settle into your seat and start to try to understand what the heck is going on in the opening act, you initially feel like you are watching a bunch of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers wearing funny clothes and stumbling around the stage while spouting Elizabethan gibberish for no apparent reason.
And then, without ever seeing it coming, Shakespeare happens.
That is the invisible hand of directors, and company founders, Morgan and her husband Jason Morgan. The pair knows their subject so well that they routinely assemble a rag-tag bunch of eager amateurs and, while they may not always be able to teach them how to act, they are amazing in their ability to put their players in touch with the true soul of the material at hand. And, better still, they nearly always succeed in communicating that magic to the audience. In this production, for example, if you don't feel King Leontes' anguish, you must be made of stone.
There are some standout performances in the show. Eric Dobbins (Autolycus), Bryan Douglas (Antigonus), Cynthia Matthews (Paulina) and Nathan Dibben (Florizel) all deliver performances that are natural and effective. Walker is a bit miscast as Leontes, in that he lacks the regal bearing needed for the role. But even if, like me, you don't buy him as kingly, he still pulls off his character's most intense moments beautifully.
The only real disappointment in the production is that one of the players is eaten by a bear, but the mauling happens offstage. Bummer. I can't remember the last time I got to see an actor eaten by a bear.