On Saturday night, we drove up past Berkeley and Oakland and into the Orinda hills for the California Shakespeare festival’s (Cal Shakes) production of Lear. After parking in the gravel lot, we wound our way up the lighted path, through picnic benches (lots of people come early to enjoy a meal before the show), café lights strung overhead.
We grabbed a glass of wine from the concession stand and headed to our seats in the outdoor amphitheater. The theater itself feels intimate despite being able to seat over 500 people–I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house.
We were advised to bring layers and blankets because even in the summer, it gets chilly. And they aren’t kidding. We weren’t freezing by any means, but we both had on sweatshirts, a jacket/coat, and a blanket for our laps. So dress warmly if you go. At intermission we grabbed hot drinks from the concession stand, and that helped a lot too.
The play itself was billed as an adaptation and interpretation of King Lear by Marcus Gardley–and what an interpretation! Set in the late 1960s with a mostly Black cast, this version of King Lear is deeply layered with more modern history, humor, and power struggles including the Black Panther movement and police violence. The altered lines are so well done, they not only offer deeper context, but there’s so much attention to the original structure. The new lines are in verse, often rhyming and sometimes making use of Shakespeare’s iconic iambic structure. Intermingled with the new lines is the great use of Jazz blues to illuminate a local (set in the Bay area) rendition of the play’s themes. I cannot say enough great things about the writing!
And the performances live up to the material. James A. Williams makes an absolutely devastating Lear–magnificent and tragic. Most of the players have multiple parts throughout the play, which makes the whole thing so dynamic. The women in the play are powerful and commanding as queens. Many of the characters change gender either through disguising their identity (as Cathleen Ridley does as the Countess of Kent), or by playing two characters (as Sam Jackson does as Cordelia and the updated fool, the Stand-up Comic).
The performance makes dynamic use of the set as well as the wings and brings the audience into the action directly.
Truly I cannot say enough wonderful things about this experience! If you’re in the Bay area and you’re able to catch the performance before Oct 2nd, I urge you to go.
Tickets starting at $35 available at: https://tickets.calshakes.org/Online/mapSelect.asp
They still check vaccination/negative test status, so bring your paperwork/pictures with you. Don’t skimp on warm clothes!