Theater, says director Joel Sass, boils down to its inherent nature of playfulness — a few people get together and tell a story — and that's why he's particularly thrilled to be directing the fanciful "Pericles" under the stars at Cal Shakes.

"It's the first play I've done outdoors since I was 10," says Sass, recalling long evenings of making believe with his pals in fields and vacant lots. "The idea of doing 'Pericles' this way came to me because I've always enjoyed fairy tales and the simplicity of theater that takes you back to your own childhood when a tabletop could be the deck of a ship and a couple of wheels and a rope could be a dragon or a horse."

And Shakespeare's "Pericles," a family saga centered on tribulations ranging from assassination to jousting for the love a beautiful woman, is the ideal show for this. The Cal Shakes play opening Saturday night is an episodic comedy/drama that is really a fairy tale for adults. It is a winding journey that moves quickly from sheer glee to abject tragedy, something, Sass admits, that has given the play a reputation as not one of the Bard's best. In fact, over the years, some have believed that portions were written by someone else.

But when you take the story as one big and imaginary journey, it all comes together. That's also something you discover when your first and only other production of the play was budgeted for only eight actors; a good-sized obstacle when the script calls for 40 characters.


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That's just what Sass faced when he was hired by the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis to direct "Pericles." However, that production and its subsequent tour proved so successful that Sass will be using a cast of only eight in the Cal Shakes production, too.

The small-cast device turned out to work well, says Sass, because it adds to audience members' intellectual engagement and draws them into the story as they watch each actor perform a series of very different roles.

"There turned out to be a sort of interesting dramatic logic to this," he says.

Audiences found themselves drawn into the mystery and fantasy of "Pericles" because they were faced with seeing an actor playing one character's worst enemy in one scene and best friend during a later appearance. That gave the piece a sort of odd and telling dream nature similar to what one finds in a real dream that casts acquaintances from over the years in strange and unusual roles in unfolding slumber dramas.

"It's very cinematic, and it does become a full-meal deal, although you might find it a little disconcerting and disjointed early on. But then you view it on a personal level and experience a very different sort of roller-coaster ride," says Sass.

He believes the production will benefit from being performed outdoors, since the natural mountainside setting will create the same sort of playtime atmosphere Sass recalls from his childhood. It was an atmosphere he tried to create indoors at the Guthrie with lights and effects, but the real thing will probably have a much more intense impact.

Reach Pat Craig at 925-945-4736 or pcraig@bayareanewsgroup.com.

THEATER pREVIEW
  • WHAT: California Shakespeare Theater's production of "Pericles," by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Joel Sass
  • WHERE: Bruns Amphitheater, Gateway Drive at Highway 24, Orinda
  • WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays through June 22
  • TICKETS: $40-$62, www.calshakes.org, 510-548-9666