Thinking Outside the Box 

Cal Shakes triumphs with Tale.

Lost children, dead queens, suffering kings, ultimate reconciliation: the last phase of Shakespeare's career was marked by a formula, and it's one we've seen a lot lately as his lesser-known works have been trotted out in multiple versions. To add to the sense of déjá vu, once again the second area production of a show far exceeds the first, this time as director Lisa Peterson tackles The Winter's Tale at Cal Shakes in Orinda. Where the recent SF Shakes version had a strong cast and not much else going for it, Cal Shakes has a strong cast, strong direction, and a vivid design that makes a long and sometimes deeply unpleasant story exciting and engrossing.

If you missed it the first time, King Leontes of icy Sicilia loses his reason and accuses his queen Hermione of committing adultery with his best friend Polixenes, king of Bohemia. Hermione and young son Mamillius die of grief, daughter Perdita is abandoned in Bohemia, and Leontes, shocked back to his senses, vows to spend the rest of his life repenting of his paranoia. Time passes, and Perdita is eventually reunited with her father through the unlikely agency of the roguish Autolycus, the rustic shepherds who have adopted her, and Polixenes' son Florizel.

Company stalwart Andy Murray is Leontes and Stephanie Roth Haberle (last season's wistful Twelfth Night Viola) is Hermione. They are well-suited as a mature couple whose deep love for each other is so rudely sundered. Peter Callender plays Polixenes, diplomatic and courtly in Sicilia, deeply angered by his son's rebelliousness home in Bohemia. Warren Keith makes his Cal Shakes debut as both Leontes' doomed councilor Antigonus and as the shepherd who finds baby Perdita in her basket; I was relieved to see him return as the shepherd, because I hadn't seen enough of him yet. Antigonus' take-no-prisoners wife Paulina is played by Domenique Lozano, who wins the audience's admiration by slapping the king around; as the only voice of reason left in the court after Camillo and Antigonus leave, Lozano's Paulina is big, rich, and necessarily merciless.

Speaking of Camillo, the more I see of Dan Hiatt, the more I like him: This is the first time I've seen him go all the way from debonair to drag in one performance, maintaining good humor in the first and dignity in the latter. Another very funny person joining for the first time since it was the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival is Mime Troupe veteran Joan Mankin. While her clown skills are subtly utilized, her presence (especially as Time, and during a sweet last moment with Mamillius) is tremendous.

Newcomers Myla Balugay and David Ryan Smith, who played unsanctioned lovers in Shotgun's recent Abingdon Square, are back as unsanctioned lovers Perdita and Florizel, but they're a lot more believable this time. Colman Domingo cuts loose as the fast-thinking, multivoiced Autolycus. Having him rap Shakespeare is awkward, but he handles it well, and gets to show off a gift for movement. Meanwhile his hapless target, Sky Soleil as the young shepherd, dons a dreadlock wig and becomes an entirely different character than any he's played yet for Cal Shakes, a physically loose and not-too-bright surfer type.

As in the SF Shakes production, Sicilia is represented in muted tones and an angular, dully colored set, while Bohemia is colorful, organic, and wild. And Peterson really thought out of the box -- or in this case, amphitheater: Bohemia is set outside the theater proper. After the intermission, audience members sit in bleachers set up in the Bruns lobby while Act Four is played out all around them. Glitter-drenched ravers dance on the rooftops and dart between cutout wood sheep, and Autolycus comes in on a motorcycle.

Going back into the "real" theater for Act Five feels oppressive, which is probably the idea; it's so gray and linear and sad after all the excitement of Bohemia. The whole thing is gimmicky but it works, not least because it makes a clear distinction not only between the two kingdoms, but between this production and the one that preceded it.

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