GLENDALE — The time is right for "The Winter's Tale"--winter is still upon us, but spring is in sight. This matches the emotional trajectory of Shakespeare's grand romance, which moves from bleakness and brutality to rejuvenation and redemption.
Art Manke keeps the focus on time during his staging of this wild yarn for A Noise Within, seen recently in Glendale and slated for stops in Irvine, Torrance and Santa Barbara. Manke also maintains a sense of urgency and wonder that makes three hours seem short.
Time is a literal character in the text--a figure whose sole speech bridges a gap of 16 years. Manke expanded Time's role. Dressed in angel wings, Time (Jason Heil) begins the play with remarks that combine the first eight lines of Shakespeare's Sonnet 12, the first four lines of Sonnet 15 and four lines from the dedication to Robert Greene's "Pandosto," the source of the plot of "The Winter's Tale." This rumination on time's passage is a more lyrical and effective introduction than the brief expository scene that Shakespeare used.
Then we plunge into the story. King Leontes of Sicilia (an appropriately bilious Dan Kern) accuses his pregnant wife (Jenna Cole) of infidelity with his friend and house guest King Polixenes of Bohemia (Mark Bramhall). Leontes asks his aide Camilio (admirably restrained Robert Pescovitz) to kill Polixenes, but Camilio instead flees with Polixenes, leaving the brunt of Leontes' arbitrary wrath to fall on the queen and her newborn daughter. Cole defends her honor with haggard looks but high passion, and Jenifer Parker, as her strongest ally, is a brilliantly eloquent advocate for justice.
Leontes' daughter survives abandonment and grows into a country lass (enchanting Abigail Dillen), who falls for Polixenes' son (Daniel Aasheim, less enchanting). She and the shepherd (Richard Voigts) who raised her, plus his son (funny John Billingsley), live in an Arcadia, but not beyond the reach of a con man (Mitchell Edmonds, a splendid charlatan). Worse, when Polixenes discovers the romance, he hits the ceiling.
This is a very tall tale. But Manke made sure we took even the most farfetched scenes seriously. When a bear eats a man, no one cavorts in a bear suit--instead, a red curtain comes fluttering down to indicate the bear's bloody repast. When a statue comes to life, Manke depicts it as a miracle, as opposed to the more realistic explanation that some interpretations might offer.
Angela Balogh Calin's basic set piece is a large zodiac-oriented sphere that highlights the theme of passing time. Composer Michael Welsh and choreographer Lara Teeter rouse spirits during Act 2.
* A Noise Within's production of "The Winter's Tale" plays Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. 8 p.m. $18-$22. (714) 854-4646. Also April 11, 8 p.m. at El Camino College's Marsee Auditorium, 16007 Crenshaw, Torrance, (310) 329-5345, $15-$18; May 8-9, 8 p.m. at UC Santa Barbara, Campbell Hall, Santa Barbara, (805) 893-3535, $12-$18. Running time: 3 hours.