The Company in the Alley Theatre’s production of The Winter’s Tale.

Image: Lynn Lane

Time to brush up on your Shakespeare—Texas style—at the Alley, where Director Rob Melrose gives us one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” that doesn’t fit neatly into tragedy or comedy, but has elements of both. Considering Shakespeare is the most produced playwright in the world, it’s wonderful to see the Alley take a risk by producing The Winter’s Tale, a play that isn’t as well-known.

While the settings are ostensibly in Sicilia and Bohemia, Scenic Designer Michael Locher interprets cosmopolitan Sicilia as something inspired by “modern-day Houston: a stylish, art-filled penthouse where sophisticated Texans mingled, drinks in hand.” Not only are there retro couches and starburst chandeliers, but also one of those sketchy modern rugs. I loved the eclectic art on the walls, especially the (actually real) Andy Warhol portrait of Lynn Wyatt—the long-time Houston patron who I spotted sitting in the audience on opening night. How Texas is that?

For Bohemia, we have a more rural setting, with haystacks that make you think of the Texas countryside, whether in West Texas or the Hill Country. It was a fun scenic spin on Shakespeare’s traditionally European locale that dovetailed well with Raquel Barreto’s costume designs, which ranged from contemporary chic to country and western to attire that reminded everyone of classical antiquity. It was a fun, upbeat, postmodern mash-up of scenic and costume design that fit well with the whimsical nature of this play, which is at one serious and emotionally heavy, and then lighter and more magical with the air of a fairy tale. I found playing with time and space and updating the music and visuals of the play made it feel fresh and original.

The story, in part, is that King of Sicilia, Leontes (Elijah Alexander) gets it in his head that his wife, Hermione (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), has been unfaithful to him with his friend, the King of Bohemia, Polixenes (Chris Hutchison). She is pregnant, and in a terrible turn of events, Leontes orders that the child be killed and that his wife be charged with adultery. The evidence is thin, but this is one of Shakespeare’s “Late Romances,” so expect outlandish plots and lots of injustice. I don’t want to give too much away about what happens next (that is part of the fun of seeing a seldom produced Shakespearean play), but plenty of suffering unfolds. And you know that famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear”? Well, it’s in this play, and a lot hinges on that person exiting and, well, being pursued by a bear

Later, some characters you thought were long gone are really not gone for long, and this fits Melrose’s description of The Winter’s Tale as a “play about healing, atonement, and correcting missteps, even unimaginably big ones.” This is a pretty charitable assessment, but I see his point. I think it is more about the power of the playwright to create a more flattering portrait of Anne Boleyn (also famously accused of adultery and beheaded for it). Why? Because Queen Elizabeth I was her daughter, the monarch who lost her own mother to King Henry XII charges of infidelity. In any case, there are some interesting twists that kept the audience engaged the entire time.

Image: Lynn Lane

What is striking about this production is the strength of this ensemble cast. Elizabeth Bunch shines as Paulina, who is not only the wife to Antigonus, but an important politico in Leontes’ realm. She plays this character with a cool sophistication that really worked.

Dylan Godwin, Shawn Hamilton, and David Rainey were wonderful in multiple roles, and all have the comedic timing that is essential for melding the physical and the vocal required to perform Shakespeare, whose lines are laced with such irony and wit. To that point, I think Christopher Salazar’s tour de force performance as Cleomenes/Archidamus/Autolycus is a master class in playing Shakespeare for contemporary audiences. When everyone is laughing at the right times during a Shakespearian production that is not so well known, you know a lot is going right on that stage. I really think Salazar is a chameleon, and when he shifted so seamlessly from cowboy grifter to prissy Brit, I knew I was watching a serious talent. Bravo to these four actors, and I hope Salazar one day becomes a part of the Alley’s repertory company, along with the other outstanding members.

The only quibble I have with this enjoyable production is that Hermione seems miscast; she is playing a queen, but doesn’t seem so regal, and her accent and countenance are all over the map. For that matter, the issue of accents is sort of weirdly assigned. Are we doing British drama, or parody, or Texas, or country bumpkin, or Italian, or what? I couldn’t figure it out. It’s a fine line between a whimsical send up of theatrical tradition and a true innovation, and it felt like a high wire act at times. But other than that, let freedom ring, and if you can remember that The Winter’s Tale is indeed a tale, well, you will have a fine time after all.

Thru Oct 13. Tickets from $28. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.

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