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BWW Reviews: Stark Naked Theatre Company's THE WINTER'S TALE Makes You Laugh, Swoon, and Cry

Left to right: Matt Lents, Shunté Lofton, Mike Sims,
Philip Lehl, Luis Galindo & Jeff McMorrough.

First published in 1623, William Shakespeare's THE WINTER'S TALE has experienced intermittent popularity. With a complex structure, the play is sometimes a tragedy, sometimes a comedy, and sometimes a romance. For the play, William Shakespeare draws large inspiration from Robert Greene's 1588 pastoral romance Pandosto, and some scholars claim the play is a parallel to the fall of Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded on false charges of adultery in 1536. As we bid farewell to the longest winter in recent memory, Houston's Stark Naked Theatre Company is producing a whimsical and surprisingly touching take on THE WINTER'S TALE.

With the heart of a fairy tale, THE WINTER'S TALE introduces the audience to two kings who think they know everything. Leontes, the king of Sicilia, is convinced his wife is unfaithful to him. Ignoring a message from Apollo's Oracle at Delphi, he condemns her to death for the perceived misconduct and faces the consequences of angering the god. Some 16 years later, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, is distraught that his son wants to marry beneath his station. Polixenes' son and his beloved flee the persecution of his father, landing in Sicilia. Both kings cause many to suffer because of their imprudent behaviors, but both learn that repentance and atonement can prove beneficial.

With a keen understanding of William Shakespeare's plays, Director Philip Lehl has a cast of eight skilled actors perform the 19 named characters and the additional chorus members. Likewise, the audience fills in as the silent lords, servants, gentlemen, ladies, shepherds, and shepherdesses. As is expected, asides are delivered directly to us; however, the lines addressed to the multitudes are given directly to us as well. We are first made privy to this concept as Philip Lehl, in a prologue, directly addresses the audience with a repurposed and re-imagined excerpt from the melancholy Jaques "All the world's a stage" monologue from AS YOU LIKE IT.

Once the action of the play is underway, with Philip Lehl's direction, the central plot of the production is delivered well to the audience. We see how suspicion quickly reduces Leontes to madness and paranoia, and the devastating effects his beliefs have. In the second act, the play's tone transitions. In the locale of Bohemia, the season shifts to spring, the mood is that of light comedy, and the pastoral idyll is celebrated until Polixenes becomes enraged by his son's behaviors. The final scenes, position the cast and audience back into a deep winter made warm by romance and a tear-jerking finale.

Philip Lehl & Tawny Stephens.

Stepping into the role of Leontes at the last minute, Director Philip Lehl delivers a rousing performance. As a fan of David Wald, I was saddened to hear that he had to leave the show for family issues, and I hope that he and his family are well. Also, I would love to see what he was doing with the role. Yet, as Leontes Philip Lehl executes a wide scope of emotions, making the character resonate inside the hearts of the audience. His quickly brought on fury and his stubbornness bring about his fall. Throughout a majority of the first act, his rashness comes across as crazed and manic, making the character both interesting and formidable. When he discovers the error of his ways, he deftly shows how Leontes is crushed by anguish. In the second act his shepherd is hilarious and jovial, and his Leontes earns our empathy.

Matt Lents and Shunté Lofton.

The romantic leads, Matt Lents' Florizel and Shunté Lofton's Perdita, are played in such a way that our own hearts root for their success. With charisma, youth, and believable chemistry, these two make us swoon for their characters.

As Hermione, Leontes' queen, Tawny Stephens is caught off guard by her husband's accusations. Her surprise is tangible and plays on our heartstrings. Luis Galindo's Polixenes is a cordial and friendly guest in Sicilia in the first act and a strong and commanding king in Bohemia in the second act. As the Sicilian nobleman Camillo, Jeff McMorrough creates a character that is charmingly honest and loyal. Likewise, Courtney Lomelo's Sicilian noblewoman Paulina is spirited and delightfully outspoken. Clown, a young shepherd, as played by Matt Lents is fun and funny. Mike Sims' Autolycus is hysterical and filled with enthralling joviality. His incorporation of The Presidents of the United States of America's "Peaches" into the show is definitely one of my favorite and most successfully staged anachronisms to date.

Another place this cast excels is in exceptionally delivered monologues. Before seeing THE WINTER'S TALE, I only knew the title of this Shakespearean play. After seeing it in performance, I cannot fathom why it is not studied more. Many of the central characters get hefty, gorgeous monologues, and this cast proficiently turns each moment into brilliant stage magic. As for a favorite, I would have to give that accolade to Tawny Stephens' riveting performances of the monologues from Act III, Scene II.

Set and Projection Design by Clint Allen works well in the intimate space at Studio 101. His draped sheets of plastic create the illusion of sheets of ice. His projections perfectly mirror the major emotions of the play, especially as we see the projected image crack and break apart during the first act. The way the projections mirrored the moods of Leontes and Polixenes was a smart and much appreciated choice.

David Gipson's Lighting Design is full of ambience and plays off the Set Design well.

Macy Lyne's Costume Design utilizes black bases with accents, which allow the cast to quickly jump from character to character.

Cut short by a week so Philip Lehl could prepare to play Leontes, Stark Naked Theatre Company's THE WINTER'S TALE doesn't have many performances left, and it is definitely a play you'll want to catch before it is gone. If you're looking for a multifaceted theatrical experience that will make you laugh, swoon, and even cry, THE WINTER'S TALE is your ticket.

Running Time: Approximate 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.

THE WINTER'S TALE, produced by Stark Naked Theatre Company, runs at Studio 101 in Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street, Houston, 77007 now theough May 16, 2014. Performances are Sunday (today) at 3:00 p.m., Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and Friday at 8:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit or call (832) 866-6514.

Photos by Gabriella Nissen. Courtesy of Stark Naked Theatre Company.

Philip Lehl & Tawny Stephens.

Mike Sims & Jeff McMorrough.

Left to right: Matt Lents, Shunté Lofton, Mike Sims, Philip Lehl, Luis Galindo & Jeff McMorrough.

Shunté Lofton & Philip Lehl.

Matt Lents and Shunté Lofton.

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