Orinda's Cal Shakes Ambitiously Takes on Steinbeck's 'Pastures of Heaven'

Photo: East of Eden. Inland from Berkeley, amid a Bard-filled season, Cal Shakes puts on Steinbeck with grace despite complex narrative.
Allyse Bacharach/Staff
East of Eden. Inland from Berkeley, amid a Bard-filled season, Cal Shakes puts on Steinbeck with grace despite complex narrative.

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There comes a moment in "Pastures of Heaven," the new production at Orinda's California Shakespeare Theater, when you realize that it's not going to be an easy narrative to follow. The initial storyline, imagining a young farmer named Bill Whiteside, evolves into a series of tangentially related little plots concerning a number of characters, all of whom call the "Pastures of Heaaven" home. Those familiar with John Steinbeck will recognize the fractured narrative as the product of his impetuous touch, which grants more care to character than plot. Cal Shakes opens its season by taking on a big challenge in trying to thread together each of Steinbeck's sensitive and humorous stories, evoking the underlying mood that connects them all.

"Pastures of Heaven," like other works of Steinbeck, is essentially a series of vignettes concerning the residents of the eponymous, fictional valley in Northern California. The plot jumps back and forth between generations and stories, with a few characters remaining present throughout.

One of the mainstays is Bert Munroe, a farmer played by Charles Shaw Robinson. An overall do-gooder, Bert sees to it that every new resident in the pastures is welcomed. Through his neighborly visits, the audience is introduced to the colorful cast of characters.

There's "Shark" Wicks (Rod Gnapp), the lone businessman in a town of farmers, whose fortune is nothing more than a bunch of figures on paper. His story, reminiscent of America's recent financial troubles, reads like a parable about the instability of wealth built on numbers instead of actual production.

Pat Humbert, also played by Rod Gnapp, is a young man still tortured by the memory of his deceased parents who sit upstage of him, covered in black veils. Their posthumous nagging is incessant - extremely aggravating for Pat, but hilarious to the audience. Like many scenes in "Pastures," these moments of morbid humor probably appear funnier onstage than they would have in print

While one of "Pastures"' best aspects is its comedy, it usually comes in this kind of dark context. Steinbeck's stories are filled with often despairing characters who endeavor to solve their problems in ways that are half-cooked and rarely successful, making them quixotic figures, equally deserving of admiration and laughter.

Take Maria and Rosa Lopez, two sisters who open a Mexican cafe. Finding that the men of the pastures are more interested in booties than burritos, they turn the place into a whorehouse, reciting their tale of rags to riches (and then ruin again, when they are busted by the police) through a mariachi song in one of the show's best sequences.

Story by story, "Pastures of Heaven" is enjoyable, but seeing them one after the other is disorienting, especially considering the logistics. There are 37 official parts, plus some nameless extra roles, all played by an 11-person cast, which made it easy to confuse the characters. The stories change too quickly to make set changes possible, though the actors do a nice job making due with the one setpiece - the interior of a large house whose identity constantly shifts.

Adapting Steinbeck, especially a work as unfocused as "Pastures," was a display of admirable ambition on the part of the Cal Shakes. Choosing to open their newly renovated theater and grounds with such a challenging production seemed to make a statement: even though wine tasting and white hair will always be common sights at Cal Shakes, conservative productions will never be part of the setting.


Take BART to Orinda for Steinbeck with Nick at [email protected]

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