William Shakespeare's "The Tempest", Forest Meadows Amphitheater, San Rafael

“The Tempest” by William Shakespeare

Marin Shakespeare Company
Forest Meadows Amphitheater
Dominican University, San Rafael CA

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Photos by Eric Chazankin:
Top photo - two of "The Qualities" collective
Bottom photo - Robert Parsons (l), Michael Torres

A Thrilling Tempest Comes To Forest Meadows

Many people avoid Shakespeare for much the same reason others avoid opera – they can’t understand what’s happening onstage. Elizabethan English is, for them, like a foreign language. But with help from the right director and actors, this barrier can be overcome, and the pleasures of Shakespeare made accessible. In this regard, is Marin Shakespeare Company’s amazing new presentation of “The Tempest” successful? Yes, because of the stunning use of creative storytelling and stagecraft. And no, because at times the language barrier remains in place.

But whether you are a Shakespeare fan or not, this is one show well worth checking out. The newest incarnation of Shakespeare’s classic fantasy-romance takes inspiration from Victorian-era sci-fi and literary works, and some modern ones too. If you enjoy the far-out tales of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and groundbreaking TV shows like Star Trek and The Wild Wild West, you will love this bizarrely electrified version of “The Tempest”. It’s loaded with extraordinary visual and sound effects that must be seen (and heard) to be believed.

“The Tempest” is a rich source of such oft-quoted expressions as “brave new world”, “what’s past is prologue” and “we are such stuff as dreams are made on”. Multiple themes are explored: Is science magic, or is magic science? Is vengeance important, or even necessary? Are people enslaved by power or culture? And that old favorite - is there such a thing as love at first sight? Some Shakespearean scholars suggest that the real underlying theme of “The Tempest” is colonialism - of the New World in general and the Caribbean Islands in particular. Watch closely for this one, you may just see it.

In Shakespeare’s original, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, is a wizard stranded for 12 years on a remote island with his now-teenage daughter, Miranda. Their only companion is a strange and monstrous humanoid called Caliban. Prospero plots revenge against those who took his title and property from him, using magic as a powerful weapon.

In visionary director Jon Tracy’s adaptation at Forest Meadows, it’s 1901, not 1601. Prospero (Robert Parsons) is a mad scientist, assisted by the beastly Caliban (Michael Torres), who lusts after wild-child Miranda (Sarah Gold). Parsons is impressive overall, but he is so opaque in the interpretation of his lines in the opening scenes that Prospero’s intentions are not immediately clear. It’s only in the second half of the play that we begin to understand the true nature of his character.

Michael Torres as Caliban delivers a riveting and articulate performance. He makes his semi-monster the most sympathetic and well-drawn character of the entire show. Sarah Gold’s Miranda is sweetly boyish and rough-hewn, easy to understand and to like. Marin Shakes Artistic Director Robert Currier delivers a sturdy performance as Alonso, King of Naples, who arrives on the scene with his handsome young son Ferdinand (Alex Hersler) after a shipwreck on Prospero's island (which turns out to be no mere coincidence). Their fellow castaways, all turning in solid performances, are Christopher Hammond as Gonzalo, Scott Coopwood as Sebastian, James Hiser as Prospero’s treacherous brother Antonio, and in a bit of comic relief, the delightfully drunken duo Trincula (Lynne Soffer) and Stephano (Cassidy Brown). In a meet-cute moment, the lovely Miranda is instantly smitten by Ferdinand, played by Hersler with enough sincere charm and strength to captivate even the wildest girl’s heart.

What may be the most entertaining character in the show, presented with jaw-dropping style, is the spirit Ariel taking form as a collective of six automatons dubbed “The Qualities”. They were created by Prospero to carry out some shady assignments. The six actors perform in perfect unison, including acrobatic back-flips into various trap doors. They speak in unison, too, mouthing their lines wordlessly, like cartoon characters in an old anime film. The costume designer, Abra Berman, deserves special mention for her spectacular work, especially in helping interpret “The Qualities” with such imagination. Sound designer/composer Brendan Aanes has created a truly original sound track for this production with certain effects that can lift you right out of your seat. The set design by Nina Ball, and lighting by Ellen Brooks, have many unique and transformational elements, fully integrating with the score, sound effects and actors.

Director Jon Tracy holds the audience spellbound with his bold and imaginative realization. His “Tempest” is a brilliant achievement. One thing - just a tiny thing, really - seems a bit odd, given the liberties taken with the setting and approach. That is, having the actors use the Elizabethan pronunciation “Millen” instead of the more recognizable “Milan”. Authenticity doesn’t seem to be an important consideration here, so why say Millen when you mean Milan?

This is not just any play, and certainly not just any Shakespearean play. It is an uncommon adventure to a brave new world, an experience not to be missed, or forgotten.

When: Now through September 25, 2011
Performances: Fridays & Saturdays 8 p.m.; Sundays 8 p.m. & 4 p.m.
Tickets: $20 to $35
Location: Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University of California
1475 Grand Avenue, San Rafael CA
Phone: 415-499-4488
Website: www.marinshakespeare.org