New Cal Shakes Show is Far From 'Heaven'

Categories: Arts

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Kevin Berne
The cast of The Pastures of Heaven
John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven

Runs through June 27 at California Shakespeare Theatre.

Imagine an episode of The Waltons that just won't fucking stop, and you'll have some idea of the horror that awaits you with The Pastures of Heaven.

The season opener at Cal Shakes is the first-ever world premiere for the usually reliable company. Adapted by S.F. playwright Octavio Solis from a short story cycle by John Steinbeck, Pastures follows dozens of characters living in a valley near Salinas over the course of many years, with a cast of 11 actors playing multiple roles. Ambitious, yes -- but ambition is no excuse for this incoherent, mawkish mess.

To begin with, it's over-narrated. With so many characters appearing in so many storylines, it's perhaps inevitable that Solis needs to spend a lot of time in explanatory mode. Even so, the narration here is often forehead-smackingly intrusive. ("I am beyond elation," one character helpfully tells us.) So that annoyed me. I didn't get hostile, though, until I was subjected to a song-and-dance number about the Lopez sisters, the proprietors of a tamale shop doubling as a brothel. (According to their clientele, "We're eating hearty / It's like a party." Sondheim it's not.)

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Jay Yamada
Emily Kitchens and Tobie Windham in The Pastures of Heaven

Before long, my hostility gave way to boredom -- and that was before intermission. The three-hour show is so fitfully paced and so poorly organized that it never picks up any dramatic momentum. It's also so earnest that you're liable to roll your eyes when you're not fighting to keep them open. (A group of children actually say the following line in unison, with no apparent irony: "We have little choice but to enjoy learning.")

At one point early in the show, I wondered if I wasn't enjoying myself because I've never liked Steinbeck. But I gradually realized that Steinbeck has nothing to do with it. The play is just plain awful.

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