It was thrilling to see a live Shakespeare play at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. The Winter’s Tale is performed only intermittently these days, so this is an especially welcome production. Eric Ting’s direction of the uniformly excellent cast created a rewarding evening under the stars. And with the requirement of masks, vaccination (or a recent negative test), and a maximum of 60% of seats sold, the audience was comfortably spaced.
Unusual for Shakespeare, the first half of The Winter’s Tale is tragic, but the second half is broadly comedic, complete with music, dancing and a happy ending. Combining these two disparate elements is not easy. The play’s adaptation by Cal Shakes artistic director Eric Ting and resident dramaturg Philippa Kelly actually highlighted the difference between the halves, and it worked well.
For example, during the first tragic act, the stage is bare. Dramatic lights highlight the trees behind the stage, and vertical theatrical lighting forms a semicircle around the back of the stage. In contrast, an elaborately painted traveling wagon becomes the stage in the comedic half. Actors change their roles in the first and second acts, adding to the upside-down nature of the bifurcated production.
In the first act, costume designer Ulises Alcala dresses most of the actors in staid solid-colored costumes, while crazy patterns and vibrant shades blossom forth in the last act. Creative costuming is also displayed during the scene based on one of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
As The Winter’s Tale begins, Polixenes, the king of Bohemia (dane troy), is visiting his childhood friend, Leontes, king of Sicilia (Craig Marker). When Polixenes wants to end his nine-month visit to Sicilia, and Leontes’ entreaties bear no fruit, Leontes asks his pregnant wife, Queen Hermione (Safiya Fredericks, Black Odyssey), to implore Polixenes to remain. Leontes is surprised and puzzled when Polixenes readily changes his mind and agrees to her request. He jumps to the erroneous conclusion that Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes and Polixenes is Hermione’s baby’s father.
In a fit of jealousy worthy of Othello, Leontes orders Sicilian Lord Camillo (Dean Linnard, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to murder Polixenes. But Camillo alerts Polixenes instead, and they flee together to Bohemia. Neither Hermione’s protestations of innocence nor the Oracle at Delphos’ confirmation of her faithfulness persuades the king. Even the birth of Hermione’s daughter does not soften the king’s heart, despite the evocative pleadings of the noblewoman Paulina (Cathleen Riddley). Ultimately, the baby is abandoned in a deserted location, and Hermione is reportedly dead. Only then does Leontes repent.
Sixteen years pass between the first and second halves of the performance. In the kingdom of Bohemia, King Polixenes’s son, Prince Florizel (also played by dane troy) has fallen in love with a lowly shepherd girl, Perdita (Sharon Shao). The funny sound effects, bawdy humor, general buffoonery, sleights of hand, and songs highlight the enormous talent of the entire cast, particularly Phil Wong, who plays the rascal/peddler Autolycus. Perdita’s parentage is one of the mysteries that happily unwinds at the end of Act II.
You might be wondering why the play is entitled The Winter’s Tale. Early in the performance, the son of Leontes and Hermione warns that “a sad tale’s best for winter.” Yet to Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, a winter’s tale generally meant an “idle tale” or tale of fiction with a happy ending — perhaps another example of the duality of this play.
If you haven’t yet experienced the magic of Shakespeare in a beautiful bucolic setting, then by all means go to see The Winter’s Tale.
The Winter’s Tale is the only production for Cal Shakes this season and runs through Oct. 2, 2021. Cal Shakes advises the audience to dress warmly in layers since the temperature may dip down during evening performances. There is a complimentary shuttle from Orinda BART. Tickets: $35-$65 (subject to change). For information, extended dates, and tickets, visit the Cal Shakes website or call 510-548-9666.