Entering heavenly Pastures

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The ensemble of Cal Shakes and Word for Word’s The Pastures of Heaven, an adaptation of the John Steinbeck book by Octavio Solis. Photos by Kevin Berne

 

Spectacular things are happening at the Bruns Amphitheater – on stage and off.

At long last, California Shakespeare Theater is getting a performance venue worthy of its status as one of the Bay Area’s foremost theater companies. Improvements to the Bruns include a new box office, new landscaping and, most importantly, a beautiful new 7,850-square-foot building to house its food operations and some spectacular bathrooms (if you ever used the bathrooms in the old endlessly “temporary” facility, you’ll appreciate just how spectacular these new facilities really are).

The improvements aren’t quite done yet, but they’re already upping the ante on the Cal Shakes experience – and just in time for Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone’s 10-year anniversary with the company.

So many things to celebrate ̶ not the least of which is the world-premiere production on the Bruns stage.

There’s a palpable sense of the new at Cal Shakes, and that extends to Octavio Solis’ adaptation of the 1932 John Steinbeck novel The Pastures of Heaven, which is the first world premiere to take place at the Bruns. In translating this book for the stage, Cal Shakes turned to the one of the nation’s greatest literary and theatrical resources, which just happens to be across the bay in San Francisco: Word for Word Performing Arts Company. There’s no better company when it comes to adapting fiction for the stage.

But in keeping with the whole idea of making things new, Word for Word’s collaboration with Cal Shakes involves, for the first time, a playwright. Usually, the wizards at Word for Word adapt short works of fiction for the stage without changing a word of the author’s original text. That’s why they’re every writer’s favorite theater company. This time out, they’re working with a playwright, and it’s inevitable that the playwright will place his own literary and theatrical stamp on Steinbeck’s work.

So you end up with an extraordinary quartet of collaborators: Cal Shakes, Word for Word, celebrated San Francisco playwright Octavio Solis and a silent but very present John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck’s Heaven, published when the author was only 30, is a novel told in 10 thematically linked short stories (with a prologue and epilogue), and Solis’ adaptation more or less follows the structure of the book with some dramatic rearrangement. The result is a play that feels more like a complete novel than the actual novel does. A deeply human story of dreams and destiny, of flaws, foibles and failure, Pastures of Heaven, both on the page and on the stage, is a compelling and beautiful story shot through with the sadness of fantasy clashing with reality.

Directed with the emotional acuity and elegance we’ve come to expect from Moscone, these Pastures are rich with nearly three hours’ worth of fascinating stories and characters enlivened by a marvelous cast of blended Word for Word company members, Cal Shakes company members and newcomers.
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Set in a picturesque valley outside of Salinas, Las Pasturas del Cielo (“pastures of heaven”) was settled by a disenchanted 49er fleeing gold greed seeking an ideal home for many future generations, and though his vast family never quite materialized (he and his wife had only one son, and that son only had one son), the area grew into a thriving little farming community.

And where there’s community there’s drama, as we find out in Steinbeck’s pithy portraits of the valley’s inhabitants. There are so many vivid moments in this production that it’s impossible to catalogue them without simply reprinting Solis’ script. But some of the stand-outs include Rod Gnapp (seen at right with Charles Shaw Robinson) as Shark Wicks, a financial whiz with a big secret whose world collapses just as his wife’s world (so insightfully illuminated by Joanne Winter) expands into bold new emotional places. It’s also impossible to forget Amy Kossow’s portrayal of Hilda Van Deventer, a terrifying child whose mother (the invaluable Julie Eccles) has an unfortunate penchant for grief and endurance.

Madness and mental challenges play a surprisingly large role in the stories Steinbeck chooses to tell. Tobie Windham plays Tularecito, a somewhat deformed young man whose mental grasp of the world is tenuous but whose artistic talent is undeniable. The young man is forced to go to school, but his teacher (an animated Emily Kitchens) reveals an unbridled enthusiasm for the boy’s artwork and his grasp of the more supernatural elements of valley nights.
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Amid much serious subjects that includes curses, ghosts, religious fervor, death by snakebites, filicide, financial ruin, and the depression of dashed dreams, the play takes a break for a chapter told completely in song. With music by Obadiah Eaves and musical direction by Julie Wolf, actors Winter and Catherine Castellanos (seen at right) play the Lopez sisters, who fail at farming and at running a diner. They finally find success in a centuries-old profession, and they do it singing and dancing (movement by Erika Chong Shuch) all the way.

Aside from wonderful guitar playing at the top of Act 2 by Richard Theiriot, there are no more musical interludes, alas. But we continue to delve into the stories of people – among them are those played by Dan Hiatt, Andy Murray and Charles Shaw Robinson – coming to California with a dream and inevitably having to reconfigure their lives when too much reality interferes.

This is an ambitious, abundantly rewarding new work that combines delicious theatricality (just watch the way 11 actors populate an entire valley and the way Annie Smart’s amazingly precise dollhouse set gives them room to do just that) with a literary pedigree that fuses Steinbeck’s muscular yet poetic prose with Solis’ lyrical, humor-tinged script.

The Pastures of Heaven tills fertile ground. Notions of destiny and legacy weigh heavily in these stories, but so do undercurrents of hope, community and determination. And this powerhouse collaboration yields a new dramatic work that should grow into a long, distinguished life on stage.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Cal Shakes/Word for Word’s The Pastures of Heaven continues through June 27 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. Tickets are $34 to $70. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

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