Cal Shakes' 'The Winter's Tale' Both Topical and Cartoonish

by Adam Brinklow

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 17, 2021

Sharon Shao, Cathleen Ridley and Dane Troy. Photo by Kevin Berne
Sharon Shao, Cathleen Ridley and Dane Troy. Photo by Kevin Berne  

Before we discuss "The Winter's Tale" at Cal Shakes, a public service announcement: 

If you're planning on taking the usual shuttle out to the theater, it now picks up on the left side of the BART station instead of the right, you're looking for a small red minivan instead of the old white bus from past seasons, and after the show it now picks up at the bottom of the hill instead of the top, like it used to.

Some signage indicating these changes would be handy for theatergoers who have relied on the shuttle to get to the venue in the past and probably expect it to be in the same place after this two-year gap. In the meantime, be careful you don't end up stranded waiting for it in the wrong places.

Now, on with the show: It's the best of times and the worst of times in Cal Shakes' first new show in two years, directed by company head honcho Eric Ting and presenting two radically different visions of Shakespeare's late romance "The Winter's Tale."

The first half is all stirring, meaty drama, full of towering speeches, high emotion, and profound tragedy, acted on a bare stage left almost completely open to the wilderness surrounding the Bruns Amphitheater.

"The Winter's Tale" seems like a truly topical tragedy, the story of a cruel and capricious ruler (Craig Marker, often affecting in comedy roles but here a bit staid) who smells conspiracy in everything and refuses to accept plain reality when it's staring him straight in the face.

Unlike many of the factually impaired tyrants of our real political scene, Marker's King Leontes eventually pays a price for his abuses: Losing his queen (Safiya Fredericks), whom he needlessly accuses of adultery.

Fredericks is, as always, the picture of class. But she's a bit upstaged by Cal Shakes first-timer Cathleen Riddley as Paulina, the gentlewoman who prophesies the king's doom. Riddley is a live wire, and any actor who seems even half as confident and credible on their best night can die content.

Craig Marker, Cathleen Riddley. Photo by Kevin Berne  

In Ting's hands, "The Winter's Tale" feels like a tragedy for our times, a story about disasters so complete that they defy us to really contemplate them, and about the malignant marriage between narcissism and power. The cast had the opening night audience gasping and squirming in their seats by the time intermission rolled around.

And that's when "The Winter's Tale" suddenly becomes a goofy, unembarrassed, downright cartoonish farce about hillbilly shepherds who strike it rich and the secret romance between a flouncing prince and a farm girl.

Yes, this is still the same story, and yes, "The Winter's Tale" has always been at odds with itself, with Shakespeare's tragic beginnings, comedic middle, and surreal, possibly magical finale jockeying within the play.

But you don't usually see the contrast played up anywhere as intensely as Ting does it here, with Ulises Alcala's goofy/tacky costumes, an entirely new set designed by Tanya Orellana that rolls onto the stage like a Burning Man Jack-in-the-box, and lots and lots of pop song interludes (too many, actually). Even the infamous bear scene becomes a gag.

It's not hard to see the appeal in this contest of extremes: The desire to retreat from brutal realities into spectacle and artifice is also a highly topical subject right now. And the goofy bits, though slight, aren't without charm.

Still, the show does a disservice to the audience by all but abandoning everything they invested in up to this point. Watchers may well feel like they're being trolled when the same actors who, ten minutes ago, were in tears are suddenly singing B-52s tunes while dressed like colorblind Ren fair enthusiasts at a thrift shop.

There is, of course, a feeling that this manic zaniness is an attempt to overcompensate for the gravity of what came before (both onstage and in our lives), and that this is all just a different symptom of the same problems. But just because a theme is coherent doesn't mean it's what's best.

Ting and company put things mostly right with the play's famously baffling redemption finale, in which Marker shakes off the formalness that dogged him in the first half and breaks down, unable to hide the ragged edge of grief any longer.

The threads of the story become almost completely lost during this. But there's no mistaking the raw pathos on display.

The excesses of this "Winter's Tale" do at least make it a show for our current moment, living as we do in a time when nothing is ever entirely all right. Instead, we vacillate between one extreme and another; often, there's just nowhere in between for our affections to go.


"The Winter's Tale" runs through October 2 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda. For tickets and information, call 510-548-9666 or visit https://calshakes.org.