A magical ‘Tempest’ at CalShakes enhanced by movement and wondrous performances

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 4/5 Stars » Highly Recommended)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest is the most magical of Shakespeare’s plays, full of spirits and mischief, song and lyric. These plays give us two of Shakespeare’s most famous and haunting lines of poetry. In Midsummer we have Puck’s lighthearted but resonant, “O what fools these mortals be.” In The Tempest, there is Prospero’s “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

Both plays are cheerful and humorous on the surface, with much clowning and amusement, while plumbing a surprising depth of feeling. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a comedy of thwarted but ultimately happy love affairs, maintains a light touch throughout.

But The Tempest, often thought to be the last written of Shakespeare’s plays, and hence one of the most profound, dives deeply into the depths of human emotion, fantasy and reality, love and loss, power and vengeance, faith and forgiveness, sin and redemption.

The back story of The Tempest is that Prospero was once the rightful Duke of Milan but was usurped by his brother, who stranded him on an island with his infant daughter. In the years that followed, Prospero has developed his occult skills as a magician, enslaving spirits and raising his daughter. Now that she has come of age, he wishes to see her married and to reveal to her the story of her noble birth. He is ready too, to take vengeance upon his brother. Using his magical powers to command spirits, he raises a storm at sea to bring his brother (still the present Duke of Milan) along with the King of Naples and the King’s son, Ferdinand, to shipwreck on the island.

The play begins with this magically instigated tempest at sea, but the more significant tempest is in the soul of Prospero, who struggles to balance vengeance and forgiveness, abuse of power and generosity, guilt and innocence, love and hatred, perhaps even God and the Devil.

In the course of the play, Prospero moves from vengeance and cruelty to forgiveness and generosity and all ends happily. The path to this happy ending includes some of Shakespeare’s funniest clown sequences, lyrical poetry and most entertaining characters.

Erika Chong Shuch as Ariel (magically floating in the air with the help of sprites, played by Melanie Elms and Travis Santell Rowland) in Cal Shakes’ production of “The Tempest”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

Director Jonathan Moscone has chosen to fully incorporate dance and music into this production, with excellent effect. With the aid of three silent dancing sprites, we are given a convincing rendition of a storm at sea and subsequent shipwreck, characters wafted through the air, mysterious music and an overall sense of magic at play.

The complex plot of the story, and the various subplots and machinations among the lesser characters, are clearly presented and easy to understand.

Michael Winters (in his Cal Shakes debut) is a wonderful Prospero, especially in the second half of this production, where his struggle to transcend vengeance and achieve forgiveness is clearly and movingly played. In a tour de force of double casting, he is equally impressive as the comic, drunken Stephano (the shipwrecked butler of the King of Naples). The two characters are so expertly differentiated that until consulting the program to write this review, I was unaware that the same actor had undertaken both parts.

Nicholas Pelczar, also double cast as love interest Ferdinand and Stephano’s mate Trinculo, accomplishes a similarly astonishing trick. Likewise, for Catherine Castellanos (Caliban and Antonio) and Emily Kitchens (Miranda and Sebastian).

Erika Chong Shuch‘s lovely choreography is enchanting throughout, as is her performance in the role of Ariel.

The rest of the cast (many playing more than one part) handles the language and choreography with elegance and expertise.

Shakespeare fans will be delighted with this production.

The Tempest continues at the beautiful outdoor Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda through June 24. For further information, click here.

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“The Tempest” by William Shakespeare, produced by Cal Shakes. Director: Jonathan Moscone. Choreographer: Erika Chong Shuch. Set Designer: Emily Greene. Costume Designer: Anna Oliver. Lighting Designer: Anna Oliver. Sound Designer: Cliff Caruthers.

Alonso: James Carpenter. Caliban/Antonio: Catherine Castellanos. Miranda/Sebastian: Emily Kitchens. Ferdinand/Triculo: Nicholas Pelczar. Ariel/Boatswain: Erika Chong Shuch.

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