If you’re thinking that the most memorable scene in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale”— categorized variously, over time, as a comedy or a late romance — is the very last one, in which a memorial statue of the presumably deceased Queen Hermione comes to life, that’s not exactly true for California Shakespeare Theater’s version; at least not in the way you imagine.
As adapted by Cal Shakes’ ever-inventive artistic director Eric Ting, along with dramaturg Philippa Kelly, and directed by Ting, the play’s somber and dramatic first part is separated from its comical and ultimately pensive second part by an intermission.
In fact, the second half — cheerfully labeled by a sign that reads “A New Play”—is so clever, such fun, that it makes the first half, which in this production tends toward the stiff and bland, seem downright dull by comparison.
In the first part, King Leontes of Sicily (Craig Marker) becomes increasingly convinced, based on virtually nothing, that the pregnant Hermione (a delightfully merry Safiya Fredericks) has been having an affair with his houseguest and lifelong best friend, Polixenes (dane troy), king of Bohemia. But unlike the jealous Othello, Leontes’ rage — at least in this rendition — doesn’t seem to smolder and grow; his anger is just there, with Leontes pacing around the bare circular set (Tanya Orellana, scenic designer), his courtiers nervously at his heels, other cast members quietly watching the action from the periphery.
It isn’t until Hermione’s been shunted off to prison (as her grief-stricken young son, played by Sharon Shao, dies) and given birth to a baby girl, that things really heat up, because that’s when Hermione’s tough and sympathetic friend Paulina arrives with the new baby to plead with Leontes for Hermione’s, and the baby’s, life. As Paulina, the wonderful Cathleen Riddley is, here, a force of nature; on opening night, she was cheered on by the audience.
Still, when the second half begins, it’s a relief when a colorfully festooned moveable mini-stage is rolled onto the round platform, and the actors — now playing the clownish citizens of Bohemia—appear in an assortment of zany outfits (costumes by Ulises Alcala).
In this long scene of revelry in Polixenes’ Bohemia, set 16 years after the events of the first half (as explained, oddly enough, by a narrator named Time), Polixenes’ son (troy again, hilariously grandiose) and Leontes’ banished-since-birth daughter, Perdita (the shape-shifting Shao), are in love.
Here, Cal Shakes’ cast of nine impressively versatile actors, their roles all mixed and matched, get to show off their considerable musical and dancerly skills, everything from sea chanties to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” to a crooned “Only You,” with the invaluable comic and musical genius Phil Wong at the top of his game.
Somehow this descent into silliness makes that final strange scene, in which the repentant Leontes gets a second chance at happiness, more affecting than you’d think.
The Winter’s Tale
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. most Wednesdays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 2
Tickets: $35 to $65