Northern Exposure 

The Barksdale's latest is a sweet tale but it leaves audiences cold.

The script is "inspired" by Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," and the fundamental conversion is clever enough. Kings and queens are transformed into laconic natives of Minnesota during the 1970s. Leonard Mattson (Jason Marr), a barber with a failing business, suspects his wife of infidelity with his best friend (Derek Phipps). His suspicions trigger events that lead to a series of tragedies. Along the way, Wright even manages to include Shakespeare's famous stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear."

Wright's female characters get the best of the material. K. Strong, as Leonard's wife, does a nice job of portraying a wife who loves her husband but is terrified of his paranoia. She even manages to pull off one of the dopiest monologues ever written for the stage.

The male characters tend to be more two-dimensional. In the first act, Leonard is a pathetic human being who needs some serious medication. Between acts, he presumably receives the medication and becomes an entirely different person when he returns. Unfortunately, we get to see none of the transformation. We're just expected to accept it at face value.

The show does have its charms, however. One is the character of Time (played by child actor, Rishabh Bajekal) who serves as chorus, occasional straight man and musical performer. In fact, all of the characters frequently break into song. Though the lyrics are often silly, the intimacy of the Barksdale (thankfully without microphones this time around) and the sweetness of the sentiments produce some endearing moments.

d. l. hopkins does a great job of portraying Leonard's deaf partner. He creates the most interesting character in the play, communicating through sign language and a few guttural words.

The best scene in the play is actually in service of the worst idea. Three fishermen (Bajekal, Bo Wilson, and Chris Evans) explain what happens when many of the characters reunite after an 18-interval. The scene is hilarious, but it is used to describe, in past tense, an explosive scene that audiences never get to see.

Aimee Huber's expressionistic set consists of veined ice structures. In the first act, they successfully convey a cold, barren world. In the second act, a combination of lighting (designed by Lynne M. Hartman) and some brightly covered fabric creates a warmer, more hopeful atmosphere.

In the end, the show doesn't quite gel. Though the playwright's notes make a big deal about the importance of time and the redemptive power of art, we get only the most glancing references to these themes. Sometimes, sweetness is not enough. S

"Melissa Arctic" continues through May 1 at Barksdale Theatre. Tickets are $36, $4 discount for seniors, students, and Ukrop's cardholders. Call 282-2620.

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