"Hard to believe, but totally true!" That's how Time, our mythical narrator, sums up the fanciful events in "Melissa Arctic," Craig Wright's modern-day transposition of "The Winter's Tale."
The same could be said of the Road Theatre's charming and hauntingly beautiful staging in which, as with all resonant fables, emotional clarity matters more than literal realism.
Shakespeare's Leontes-Hermione-Polixenes royal triangle unfolds more prosaically in Wright's recurring Pine City, Minnesota setting, where beer-guzzling barber Leonard (Tom Musgrave) unfairly suspects wife Mina (Laurie Okin) of cheating on him with best friend Paul (Coronado Romero). Intervention attempts by Leonard's friends (Brian M. Cole, Michael Dempsey, Elizabeth Sampson) fail to avert the resulting tragedy.
Wright's Minnesota is more a landscape of the mind than a geographical locale, and director Scott Alan Smith represents it with a stunningly immersive visual realm in which Desma Murphy's tree trunk-threaded set and Kaitlyn Pietras' animated projections are as integral to the experience as the story.
The figure of Time, who makes only an interlude appearance in Shakespeare's original, remains an onstage commentator personified as a young girl (Samantha Salamoff, alternating with Alexa Hodzic).
While familiarity with "The Winter's Tale" is not needed to follow and enjoy this well-acted portrait of destructive jealousy and healing compassion, it does help to more fully appreciate the motives, themes and psychological depths in the play's erratic characters and structural quirks.
Foremost among these oddities is the abrupt tonal shift between the heartbreaking first half dominated by Musgrave's riveting psychotic breakdown, and a second act that jumps 18 years ahead to a joyful pastoral celebration of youth, generosity and psychic renewal.
This bipolar construction has lumped "The Winter's Tale" among Shakespeare's "problem plays" that resist classification as comedy or tragedy.
Rather than trying to smooth over the whiplash-inducing swing from darkness to light, Wright embraces it, most explicitly in mortician-turned-hippie farmer Alec (a superb Joe Hart), who raises Leontes' abandoned daughter (Hannah Mae Sturges) and blesses her union with Paul's son (Lockne O'Brien).
In place of verse, Wright threads the piece with poetic songs (with Danny Webber on keyboard) that seldom unduly tax a cast of primarily actors rather than singers. The resulting thematic tapestry of rebirth and the restorative power of art satisfies against all narrative probability. Hard to believe, but totally true.