A sad tale may be best for winter, but California Shakespeare Theater is marking the change of seasons with a funkadelic "A Winter's Tale."
Patricia McGregor's playful but uneven take on the late Shakespeare work conjures up a disco-era 1970s vibe that's part carnival, part lounge act and all groovy. The frisky attitude extends from the props, which include smartphones, to the framing of the verse and the cheeky use of audience participation. The director plays fast and loose with the text, fast forwarding through some scenes and showcasing others in a brisk 2½-hour production. If the disparate elements in this autumnal fairy tale never quite coalesce, there's a lot about this "Winter's Tale," which closes the summer season, that warms the heart.
McGregor, who directed "Spunk" for Cal Shakes last summer, wisely assembles a cast of veterans that don't disappoint. L. Peter Callender makes a riveting Leontes, the mad king of Sicily who denounces his loyal wife Hermione (Omoze Idehenre) in a fit of jealous rage. Callender navigates Leontes' descent into paranoia and dementia with chilling insight. Once swayed by his inner demons, the king is blind to the honor of Polixenes (Aldo Billingslea), the king of Bohemia, and deaf to the entreaties of the wise Paulina (the always magnetic Margo Hall). Whether he is a tyrant or a lunatic is never certain, but in Callender's hands, there's no denying the toxicity of his bile.
The director also invokes Hermione's fate with a thrilling brutality. Dragged into court fresh from giving birth, the innocent queen is dressed in orange prison garb, her hands shackled, her eyes dead of all hope. An executioner stands behind her ready to steal her life, and that of her unlucky infant daughter. While the production is less successful summoning up the pastoral charms of the second act, it's hard to shake off the ferocity of Act One.
However, McGregor jams the production full of participatory interludes and not all of it works. A singalong to cover a set change seemed belabored, despite Christopher Michael Rivera's considerable charisma, which also serves him well as the rogue Autolycus. Having an audience member play the character of time seemed more distracting than anything else. However, the use of double casting (Callender plays both monarch and shepherd) is quite effective here.
Certainly all of these inventions suit the extreme plot twists in "The Winter's Tale." It's a challenging piece, written just after the masterpiece that is "King Lear," full of miracles and damnation, and where 16 years transpires between one act and another. A massive suspension of disbelief is part of the experience of the play, which demands that we forgive the unforgivable and believe the unbelievable at every turn.
Among the play's bursts of the fantastical are: an enraged oracle from the temple of Apollo, a shipwreck on the high seas, a statue that comes to life, a princess reared as a shepherdess and, oh yes, a man eaten alive by a bear. Michael Locher's enchanting but simple set enhances the sense of beguilement with sparkling lights, a fairy-tale tower and a Maypole (movement by Paloma McGregor) that deftly frame the natural beauties of this picturesque outdoor venue.
Still, in the end, this "Winter's Tale" never finds a way to tether the tragedy of the first act with the sunny romance of the second. Speeding through some of the play may have heightened the issue. A lack of chemistry between the young lovers Perdita (Tristan Cunningham) and Florizel (Tyee Tilghman) doesn't help matters in the draggy second half of the piece.
While there's no lack of whimsy in this tale, the ending falls short of the tidal wave of wistfulness it deserves. Some of the existentialism of this late romance gets lost along the way, but it's still a lively fable.
By Shakespeare, presented by California Shakespeare Theater company
Through: Oct. 20
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
Running time: 2 hours,
30 minutes, one intermission