Page One

A bracing winter's tale at Cal Shakespeare

Robert Hall
Thursday September 19, 2002

I first saw “A Winter’s Tale” in Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. That was more than 30 years ago, but I still remember the program note informing the audience that both Hermione and her daughter Perdita would be played by an up-and-coming young British actress. 

That actress’s name was Judi Dench. 

Cal Shakespeare’s new production of “A Winter’s Tale,” at the Bruns Theater in the Orinda hills, may not boast Dame Judi, but it has plenty of other things going for it—except for a jarringly misconceived Act 4. 

Still, 4/5 of a great drama is a pretty good fraction, and Cal Shakes makes that majority grandly stirring. 

The play is one of Shakespeare’s final trios, sometimes called “romances,” beginning in tragedy but ending in sweet reconciliation. They’re healing works, and there’s nothing quite like them, though their contradictions can make them tricky to pull off. The flawed tragic hero of “A Winter’s Tale” is Leontes, King of Sicilia, who flies into an Othello-like rage when he suspects his wife Hermione is carrying a child by Polixenes, the visiting King of Bohemia. “It’s a bawdy planet,” Leontes raves, his groundless jealousy driving him to imprison his wife and command that her child be abandoned on some far shore. 

That shore turns out to be Bohemia, where the girl, named Perdita by the shepherd who finds her, grows up and ultimately returns home to her remorseful father. The child finds her mother, too. Though Hermione is reported to have died, this magical play can bring even stone statues to life. 

For its version, Cal Shakespeare performs Acts 1, 2 and 3, calls an intermission, then offers us Act 4, set in Bohemia, in its outdoor “lobby,” before herding us back into the Bruns amphitheater for act five. If you head home at that intermission, you’ll have seen a superb production of a three-act tragedy. Everything in this initial sequence works, from the opening moment when Joan Mankin, as Time, offers a crystal ball to Leontes’ doomed son, Mamillius, to Kate Edmunds’ spacious set of boxy gray-green forms that reflect the rigidity of Leontes’ court. Meg Neville’s costumes encase the Sicilians in muted suits that enhance the effect, while Gina Leshman punctuates the action with sonorous cello work. Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting sets moods and picks out dramatic moments nicely, and Cliff Carruthers supplies thunderous sound. 

Under director Lisa Peterson’s deft guidance the acting here ranges from good to superb. L. Peter Callendar makes a warm and gracious Polixenes, Domenique Lozano gives Paulina dignity and spunk, and Dan Hiatt capably conveys Camillo’s troubled loyalty. Warren Keith is a dutiful but aggrieved Antigonus, and in the lead role Andy Murray creates a passionate and self-tormented Leontes. Most impressive is Stephanie Roth Haberle as Hermione. Wrapped in a moving dignity, Haberle gives the play a moral center, and her self-defense at her trial may be the most compelling acting of the fall theater season. 

Then there’s that aberrant Act 4, in which Cal Shakespeare funs-up the Bard with screaming teen-agers, mopeds and psychedelic motley. Some of the acting here is inept, some so broad that it nearly breaks the back of the play, though a strong Act 5 redeems the nonsense with an affecting reconciliation. 

“A sad tale is best for winter,” Mamilius pronounces in act one, but in “A Winter’s Tale” Shakespeare calls sadness back from the brink of tragedy to deliver a magical happy ending. 

Good for him—and good and for us, too.