From left, Tristan Cunningham, L. Peter Callender, Aldo Billingslea and Margo Hall in “A Winter’s Tale”
Photo by Alessandra Mello
From “The Winter’s Tale” by William Shakespeare
Directed by Patricia McGregor
California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes), Orinda, Calif.
Sept. 25-Oct. 20, 2013
“A sad tale’s best for winter,” says the queen’s son when she asks him to tell her a story.
That may be true, but the production of “A Winter’s Tale” now at Cal Shakes can’t quite make up its mind about whether it’s supposed to be sad or silly. Patricia McGregor’s somewhat wrongheaded production (an edited version of “The Winter’s Tale”) is serious and borderline tragic in the first act and romantic and sportive in the second — as is the text, which begins and ends in the court of Sicily with a huge slice of rustic life in between. But this production adds so much foolishness — song, dance, nudges in the ribs — that it’s hard to know whether we are meant to laugh at the serious stuff as well as the jokes.
In all fairness, “The Winter’s Tale” is not Shakespeare’s best. Most famous for its stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear,” it was not performed in England for some 100 years after its debut. No “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet,” in spite of some passages of great beauty and a powerful feminist figure in the court lady Paulina, it registers fairly low on the popularity scale to this day. The story hinges on a jealous king’s near-fatal rage at his wife (but it’s no “Othello” either) and his eventual reunion with the now-grown daughter he meant to have killed in her infancy. Of course, she has bloomed into a pretty shepherdess who has caught the eye of the son of the jealous king’s perceived rival. Don’t ask. Of all the puzzles contained in this production, the biggest one is why California Shakespeare Theater, known for its innovative excellence, would choose to end its season pursued by this particular bear.
There are some terrific performances, especially by Margo Hall as Paulina and a number of lesser characters (the excessive doubling of roles doesn’t help the clarity of an already-confusing plot) and Christopher Michael Rivera as a charming cutpurse. The wonderful L. Peter Callender anchors the production as the enraged Sicilian king, Leontes, and in the second act as the kindly, if slightly stupid, shepherd who raises the foundling princess as his own. Tyee Tilghman is sincere as a loyal retainer and, in Act Two, the prince who woos the shepherd lass (the pretty Tristan Cunningham). Aldo Billingslea (Lord Windermere in Cal Shakes’ last production) is the wrongly accused King of Bohemia.
But Omozé Idehenre, a gifted actress who has shone at A.C.T. and Berkeley Rep in a variety of roles, is all wrong for the part of Hermione, the unjustly maligned queen. Her diction is so poor that it was hard to follow what she was saying — and in her trial scene she had a lot to say. The delivery of several of the actors, especially in the first act, left much to be desired. Only Callender and Hall seemed up to the Shakespearean style.
Michael Locher’s colorful sets switch from court to country nicely, but Katherine Nowacki’s costumes are rather weird (the bear looks pretty good, though). So is the interpolated juggling and singing. There’s just too much going on in this production and too few people to carry it to a graceful conclusion. Especially when the scene between two court gentlemen explains how the now-repentant king discovers his daughter is still alive was cut.
Perhaps a silly story just lends itself to a silly depiction. Exit, pursued by a bear.