In “Melissa Arctic,” Craig Wright’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” it’s difficult to take your eyes off 11-year-old Kiah Victoria, who is a fixture on stage in the role of the chorus, “Father” Time. She introduces the play with a sweet song that plaintively asks, “Can everything be perfectly still? Just for once, can we find peace in letting everything be still?” She then settles in to watch the story unfold, occasionally weaving unnoticed among other characters for a better view.
The child establishes more than just a disarming context for the ensuing tragicomedy, transported here to rural Minnesota in 1970. Engrossed in the action, she is also a constant reminder that we’re watching a fairy tale, albeit one that is famously off-kilter. Wright provides a downright cuddly adaptation that adds a rosy hue to the calamities that affect its characters.
Adhering to the framework of the original, this contemporary saga involves a jealous barber named Leonard who falsely accuses his adoring wife, Mina, of adultery with visiting chum Paul. They are Shakespeare’s Leontes, Hermione and Polixenes, played convincingly by Ian Merrill Peakes, Holly Twyford and Kelly AuCoin, respectively. Other common elements include an abandoned child who is discovered 16 years later; an abrupt transition from drama to comedy with assistance from a wild bear; and the reappearance of the dead wife.
“Arctic” is the third of Wright’s plays to be set in the imaginary town of Pine City, Minn., joining “Molly’s Delicious” and “The Pavilion.” As with his “Recent Tragic Events,” which premiered here last season, it is populated with earnest characters who offer insightful dialogue about their relationships and ambitions. The prolific Wright, a scribe on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” also wrote the music and lyrics, which contribute mightily to the experience.
The play is receiving a first-class preem at D.C.’s Folger Theater, sensitively staged by Aaron Posner, who adroitly maneuvers the action along its quirky path. Tony Cisek’s plain set is dominated by blank artists’ canvases that are occasionally filled with light and silhouettes.
An expert cast is led by Peakes’ deft portrayal of unbridled fury followed by self-conscious restraint. AuCoin similarly brings depth to a character who changes dramatically in the 16-year interval, while Twyford is the soul of compassion as the wife and mother.
Other notables include Dori Legg as the caring friend and artist, Michael Willis as her husband and Davis Marks as Shakespeare’s good shepherd, played here as a free-spirit farmer. Then there’s Victoria, who steals the show with her powerful voice and dimpled presence.
While “Arctic” is likely to strike some as a syrupy treatment of the Bard, others will welcome it as an appealing approach to a classic fable.