There are two basic approaches to playing Shakespeare: The "stand and speak" method concentrates on delivering the lines clearly, which may seem static and dull, while the "Method style" emphasizes creating behavior and clever business to "make Shakespeare interesting." This production takes the second course, distracting our eyes with inventive ideas, murky lighting, and irrelevant touches of realism, when our ears should be allowed to listen. As a result, the text is often hard to grasp. Even before the Bard's first words are uttered, we're treated to five minutes of clever staging. We see Leontes (Geoff Elliott) giving a reading lesson to his son Mamillius (Nicholas Apostolina), and we're treated to a dance by characters who are unknown to us. The stage is filled with milling courtiers, so that when we finally arrive at Scene 1, the expository dialogue is hard to understand.
This is a pity, because the piece is well-cast, and the actors are skillful. Elliott (who co-directs with Julia Rodriguez Elliott) is a strong and athletic actor who ought to be a terrific Leontes, but his performance is muffled because in the early scenes, when we should be watching the emergence of his paranoid jealousy, he's way upstage and in the dark while we're focused on the innocent flirtation of his wife, Hermione (Jill Hill), with his friend Polixenes (Stephen Rockwell), way downstage and more brightly lit. We need to see both, but it's Leontes we need to watch. His soliloquies are robbed of intimacy and meaning when he's kept in the middle distance.
Hill, despite hoydenish early scenes, is excellent in the later and stiller scenes; Deborah Strang makes a commanding figure of co-conspirator Paulina; William Dennis Hunt is a sturdy and credible Camillo; and Tom Beyer garners the requisite laughs from the rogue Autolychus. But the distractions continue: Characters are brought back from the dead, a strolling violinist wanders in and out, and the Bohemian shepherds are bizarrely costumed as vegetables, turning the sheep-shearing into a gaudy harlequinade.
Darcy Scanlin's wintry set design, Soojin Lee's fanciful costumes, and Peter Gottlieb's atmospheric lighting are handsome, but they don't serve the play. The one indispensable element in Shakespeare is clarity, verbal and otherwise. Without that, those long rhetorical tirades can seem like mere gabbling.
Presented by and at A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Variable schedule. Sep. 29-Dec. 7. (818) 240-0910, ext. 1. www.anoisewithin.org.