The Tempest (in a teapot)

TempestBy Philip Pearce

PAPER WING FREMONT has just opened an all-new production of The Tempest. Reputedly Shakespeare’s last solo work, its 17th century cast and crew were able to move indoors from the Globe and exploit the glitzy scenery and elaborate stage machinery of King James the First’s court theater. The script features airborne spirits, magic banquets descending from the skies and song and dance numbers by classical gods and goddesses. Since the Fremont stage covers about the same square footage as my condominium living room, it’s an unlikely venue for The Tempest. But, pared down to essentials with eleven undaunted principal characters right in your face, this neighborhood production, by and large, is an energetic and rewarding experience.

It’s about a banished Milanese Duke named Prospero, who gets revenge on the dastardly younger brother who has ousted him from political power and packed him and his infant daughter off to an exotic distant island. Using magical powers (he’s a practicing wizard) Prospero stirs up a violent storm which dumps brother Antonio and some other guilty Milanese shipmates onto his island kingdom, where Prospero uses more magic to bring them to heel, forgive them and reclaim his dukedom.

Clark M. Brown is a likeable and well-spoken Prospero, even when he is busily raging at being banished or wielding dictatorial power over native residents of the island. He is at his best in the moments when Prospero seems to step outside the action to describe and comment on the performance like a wise play director (“…we are such stuff as dreams are made on.”) He is less successful in the strong emphasis he puts on Prospero as the tortured victim of past evils. Evils, yes, but they are past. He now holds all the power, controls all that happens in the play from start to finish. As a focused and fully-armed winner, Prospero can afford to show a bit of the self-assured and sardonic scorn which the dialogue suggests but which is largely missing from Brown’s attractive portrayal.

Like Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Prospero has a resourceful lackey to carry out his countermeasures against Antonio and the other captive rebels. Ariel, his energetic gopher/agent, is acted with engaging gusto by Beverly Van Pelt. I have seen the part played in some productions as a perky Tinkerbell clone and once as an airborne male gymnast. Aided by some scary makeup and the most expressive eyes on the Monterey Peninsula, Van Pelt wisely chooses to offer us Ariel as a chameleon. Sometimes she is a wild-haired scamp delighting in mischief, sometimes she’s a busybody tattletale reporting enemy tactics to headquarters, at other moments she slouches and pokes out her lower lip like a sullen schoolboy with an overload of homework, wondering if her master will ever keep his promise to free her when all their shared dirty work is done.

Prospero’s other captive spirit is Caliban, the grumbling and animal-like offspring of a witch whom Prospero, himself a usurper, has supplanted as ruler of the island. Jason Roeder’s performance is suitably bestial, hampered only by the fact that however grubby his makeup, he is obviously a personable and well-spoken young man who could probably act any of the script’s more heroic characters with ease.

Caliban falls victim to two of the lowest of the lower class shipwreck survivors, Stephano and Trinculo, played with enormous energy by William Colligan and Phil Livernois, who are riotously funny if occasionally too explosively loud for the small confines of the Fremont stage.

As the usurper villain Antonio and his nasty sidekick Sebastian, Larry Oblander II and Director Patrick R. Golden team up to deliver the sharpest and most perceptive acting of the evening. With dark wit and flawless melodramatic timing, they plot to take over the island, natural resources and all, by murdering two of their more noble fellow shipwreck survivors. One proposed victim is a kindly if long-winded courtier named Gonzala. She’s a male named Gonzolo in the original script but the gender bend makes for a nice new look at the character, played with a reflective professorial charm by Alyca Tanner. The plotters also plan to kill Alonso King of Naples, whose rather thankless role requires him to spend most of the evening mourning the drowning of his son Ferdinand. Jay Devine does ably by Alonso but he’s lots more fun to watch as the desperate, bellowing Captain of Antonio’s doomed pirate ship.

As one of literature’s foremost control freaks, Prospero also magically orchestrates a romance between his teen-aged daughter Miranda and Alonso’s son Prince Ferdinand, who of course hasn’t drowned at all. Alina Flanary is a lively and winsome Miranda. As her swain, Cody Moore is a puzzle. The cast bios posted on the lobby walls indicate he’s a dancer and his portrayal is marked, as if in a ballet, by bodily undulations and snaky hand movements that seem arresting but odd in a romantic hero or a Milanese political figure. He has an other-worldly stare that suggests he might have made an interesting Ariel or even Caliban.

Attacking the thorny problem of fitting all those airborne singers and dancers onto a pocket handkerchief stage, director Patrick Golden changes them into the two thinly disguised buffoons Stephano and Trinculo, directed by an anxious Ariel. It’s a good comic idea, but loses the point of the sequence, which is aimed only at the newly engaged lovers not as comic relief but as a vision of the magic and beauty of the enchanted island. Knockabout comedy or mystical magic, it’s not essential to the story and is probably such a reach for most audiences that I wish it had been cut.

Which would have sped the progress of Act Two. Golden and the cast move Act One at a brisk and satisfying clip, even with Prospero’s notoriously long opening résumé of the back story. The second act dragged a bit, at least on opening night. The cast seemed so respectful of all that Shakespearean poetry that they spoke it at a measured pace that made all the words clear but slowed down the action.

Overall, it’s enjoyable and continues, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 3, through March 20.