Shakespeare and Steel

'A Winter's Tale' is a winner; 'Magnolias' is well-crafted and heartfelt

Although the 2011-2012 theater season is winding down, Rogue Theatre and Arizona Onstage Productions opened a couple of plays last weekend, and they both represent some fine work. Rogue brings us a little-produced Shakespeare comedy, A Winter's Tale, and Arizona Onstage gives us Robert Harling's popular Steel Magnolias.

If you're planning on traveling back in time to the Italian Renaissance for a summer vacation, I would definitely recommend you visit Bohemia rather than Sicilia. It's a much more fun place—music, dancing and frolicking abound. And some really funny characters inhabit the place, always joking around and good for a laugh.

Sicilia, on the other hand—at least in the court of King Leontes (Joseph McGrath)—is dark and serious and really uptight. And the king—he's a real piece of work. Out of nowhere he gets it in his head that his wife has been messing around with his best friend—the king of Bohemia, Polixines (David Morden), who's been visiting in Sicilia for a while—and that his friend has actually sired the young prince Mamillius (James Cockrell) and has impregnated his wife again. Why does Leontes think this? He's nuts, that's why. Or that's what it seems; there are no other plausible reasons offered. All of his court tries to assure him that he is not a cuckold, but he'll have none of it. He throws his wife in jail and when she bears a baby girl, he decrees that the wee thing be taken to Bohemia and left alone in the elements, allowing fate to take its course. And because fate is what it is, there are enough surprises and twists—including a big ol' hungry bear—to make for a pretty darn good, if often odd, story.

There's a reason that The Winter's Tale is not one of Shakespeare's most-produced plays; it's a big, sprawling story with wildly different temperaments and inexplicable emotional shifts within its characters. But the Rogue does a solid job of breathing life into it. It's definitely worth a look, especially if you're a fan of the Bard.

Director Cynthia Meier has assembled a group of actors capable of pulling off Shakespeare's convoluted story, as well as that rich but tricky language, so unfamiliar to our ears that it can often challenge even very good actors. Most everyone here does a respectable job. They make sure we get the story and Meier makes sure that the story moves along at a pleasing clip. Fortunately, she has chosen to take a rather straightforward approach, with no cutesy directorial "vision," which so often makes productions of Shakespeare's plays downright absurd.

This is not to say, however, that she does not have a vision. She does, and it's a simple one: Try to tell a good story. Don't worry about trying to make sense out of all of Shakespeare's crazy plot twists and his characters' peripatetic mood swings. Create a strong sense of place, which Meier does quite eloquently and simply with costumes (which she designed) and music. Get some really good actors who can help carry the piece, especially Kathryn Kellner as Paulina (we will forgive her for having a British accent while the other players do not) and Patty Gallagher as the way-fun pickpocket/clown Autolycus. And don't try to weight the play with too much philosophical or even mythological meaning.

Meier's simple, though certainly not simplistic, vision pays off. The result is a delightful evening of theater.

Harling's Steel Magnolias is now 25 years old, but it still holds up as a delightful story of a group of small-town, Louisiana women who gather in Truvy's beauty salon to schmooze and gossip and to get their hair and nails done. This last is critical, because, as Truvy (Jacinda Rose Swinehart) declares, "There is no such thing as natural beauty."

But perhaps even more important than as place for the implementation of un-natural beauty, Truvy's shop is where these friends meet to share and find support for the travails—both simple and serious—of their lives. The effectiveness of Harling's play is that it is a well-crafted and heartfelt story of women's friendship and the sustaining strength that grows from it.

There is little real plot, although the play is organized around the characters of Shelby (Dani Dryer) and her mother, M'Lynn (Amy Almquist), over a period of three years. We meet this sturdy group of women, including Roxanne Harley as Clairee and Martie van der Voort as Ouiser, on the day of Shelby's wedding. It's a perfect occasion to discover quite a bit about this crew as they talk about their families, the men in their lives and their neighborly feuds, and whisper about the new girl in town, Annelle (Lucille Petty), whom Truvy has hired to help in the shop. Most significantly, we learn that Shelby has juvenile (Type 1) diabetes. In the ensuing scenes, we learn that Shelby is pregnant, although she has been warned by her doctors that this could jeopardize her life; that Shelby has given birth to a healthy son; that her pregnancy has taxed her failing kidneys and she is in need of a transplant; and that in the circumstances of tragedy, the love and support of friends is what gets us through.

Since this is a story of friendship, the play is not effective unless the ensemble is successful. This is a fairly well-matched group, and their banter and kidding and pokes at each other—which are often laugh-out-loud funny—seem real, and their bond seems genuine.

Director Fred Rodriguez gets it right most of the time, although there is some tweaking needed here and there to make this a truly stellar production. Michael Boyd's set works wonderfully.

Harling's play is sweet, very funny, and touching; Arizona Onstage does it well.

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