Despite the efforts of a resourceful cast, last weekend’s opening night performance never quite overcame the challenges of the playwright’s sprawling late-life romance, which moves from the Sicilian court of King Leontes (the excellent L. Peter Callender) to the wilds of Bohemia and back again.
Callender gives a chilling performance as the paranoid ruler convinced that his queen, Hermione (Omoze Idehenre), has betrayed him with his best friend, Polixenes (Aldo Billingslea).
The production’s opening scenes, in which Leontes goes over the edge — arresting Hermione, ordering the death of Polixenes and banishing his infant daughter to a remote seacoast — are grippingly staged by McGregor on Michael Locher’s accommodating set.
From there, the production loses momentum. McGregor, who directed a superb production of “Spunk” for Cal Shakes last season, takes a diffuse approach this time, framing the show as a tale told by a traveling troupe and adding musical numbers, funky dances, hip-hop beats and audience participation bits. Actors break away from the action to address the crowd directly. Shakespeare’s best-known stage direction — “Exit, pursued by bear” — gets a contemporary twist.
Some of it works. A lot of it doesn’t. The pacing often feels rushed in the court scenes, static in the Bohemian ones. The renewal of the final scene misses the magical tone that makes “A Winter’s Tale” great.
The production boasts some of the Bay Area’s finest actors, all playing multiple roles — royals and country folk, young and old, male and female — and their shape-shifting performances nearly make up for the production’s deficiencies. Callender, magnetic as Leontes, returns as a gentle Shepherd. Margo Hall is a forceful Paulina and an endearing country bumpkin.
Idehenre switches from a touching Hermione to a chattering peasant girl, and Christopher Michael Rivera does a deft double turn as Autolycus and Antigonus.
Billingslea’s robust Polixines, Tristan Cunningham’s fresh Perdita and Tyee Tilghman’s youthful Florizel make strong contributions.
But even they can’t supply what’s curiously lacking in the production — a clear directorial vision to unite Shakespeare’s extreme elements. This “Winter’s Tale” approaches the play’s unsettling power, but never quite gets to the heart of it.
A Winter’s Tale
Presented by the California Shakespeare Theater
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 20
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
Tickets: $20 to $72
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org