Because it is neither purely comedy nor tragedy, Shakespeare’s The Tempest gives a director a little more room to move — is it going to be all heavy and intense, or played for laughs? From the beginning shipwreck, where director Liliian Groag works an interesting variation on the “moving fabric as water” trick, it’s clear that the current CalShakes incarnation will be on the lighter end of the spectrum. It’s hard to worry too much about the fate of a storm-tossed ship, after all, when actor Ron Campbell is running around whapping a stuffed cat against the proscenium.
Which is not to say that the production is lightweight. Silly and charming, yes, but still intense, especially when it comes to loss. While this is not an epic Tempest so much as a human-scale one, giddily physical and peppered with cheesily amusing sound effects, the big themes of love, submission, vengeance, and forgiveness are still in play. And most of them are spelled out by the two servants Prospero took upon coming ashore after being set adrift to die with his little daughter Miranda, victims of a coup by Prospero’s brother Antonio.
It’s striking that the actors playing Caliban and Ariel are married. They manifest two extremes: Caliban earthy, heavy, and rough, Ariel ethereal and delicate, jumping lightly from place to place. Caliban was born of Sycorax the witch, while Ariel was Sycorax’ slave, putting the two in a strained relationship to begin with. These actors provide the show’s most dramatic images as they show off what twelve years of exile have done to the former duke of Milan.
The decision to make Ariel not only birdlike, but a bird of prey, is interesting. Mhari Sandoval’s siren song is actually a strangely amplified hunting shriek, her movements those of a hawk on the stoop. The blue feathers twisted into her hair evoke the real Steller’s jays flying back and forth behind the outdoor stage — either she is of them or she has eaten them. At rest, her hands twitch slightly but firmly, like feathers being shaken clean. She is not just Prospero’s servant, but the hands of his vengeance.
That Prospero has been more successful in using her than the clumsily affectionate Caliban suggests that he has been better prepared to face and use his anger than his forgiveness. Only by acknowledging and then releasing both creatures can he become whole, and even knowing the outcome, there is honest tension around whether he will do right by them.
Where Ariel is sharp and sure, Caliban is subtly tragic. Watching the shipwrecked servants Trinculo and Stephano express their pleasure at having found each other, he tries to replicate their greetings, hugging the air, patting the back of an invisible friend. The audience may laugh, but it’s incredibly sad; Caliban longs for affection and love, but is denied. Even in the scene where we learn that he has fallen from favor with Prospero for trying to rape Miranda, it’s hard to see him as malign so much as lonely and very, very dirty. And while Ariel serves primarily because she desires her freedom, Caliban serves first out of love. Triney Sandoval shows this in Caliban’s angry howl in the second act, describing a dream that stinks of love scorned.
An extension of Ariel, Groag’s Spirits are adorable. Eight actors in oatmeal-colored tunics, some of them with long feathers sticking up from their heads like quails, tumble and chatter throughout the action. One gets between Stephano and his bottle, another plays a concertina, and yet another wields a “bug” on a stick to torment Prospero’s visitors. In the most fun scenes, they play with Caliban, Stephano (Ron Campbell in a fake wine-stained belly), and Trinculo (Jud Williford, showing off physical comedy chops he didn’t get a chance to in Nicholas Nickleby). It’s all clown, all the time in these scenes, which owe a lot to Groag and Campbell’s beloved commedia dell’arte; they make this show the one you should use to introduce kids to Shakespeare.
Scholars suspect The Tempest was the last play Shakespeare wrote solo, and the only one whose plot is completely original to him. Often the parallel is drawn between Shakespeare and his protagonist: two men, makers of illusion, preparing to put down their tools. Like the other works from this period, especially A Winter’s Tale, there is an autumnal feeling. Even the wedding of two young people is secondary to the story of an old man seeking peace. Although at first he doesn’t seem old enough to anchor Prospero, Anthony Fusco catches that sense of leaves turning, of things lost to time and change. He plays the magician’s heartbreak nicely — such as when, crotchety and proper, he seats himself between Miranda and Ferdinand to keep them from groping each other before they are properly wed. Fusco’s chemistry with Elizabeth Schmidt as Miranda is lovely, especially in the second act, and with Mhari Sandoval’s Ariel, just ambiguous enough. His gravity holds up well against the scheming of the noble visitors. A man who has been hanging out on an island for twelve years with a bunch of books about magic can be a scary dude, but Fusco doesn’t play Prospero big, so much as focused and a little weary.
Meg Neville has helpfully dressed each batch of characters in related costumes. Trinculo and Stephano run around in shabby things, the nobles in elaborate ones, and Prospero and his suite (other than Ariel) in loose white. Annie Smart’s set is characteristically simple but the enchantment is strong. Occasionally the Spirits will bring out some absurd things — seven-feet-high pink flowers, a pineapple, pillows painted with clouds — that remind us that the island is a strange and magic place, especially extended out into the natural setting of the Bruns.
Lately it has become fashionable to talk about The Tempest as a story about imperialism — Prospero comes to the island and tries to “civilize” the native Caliban. And Shakespeare — who quotes here from Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals” — had much to work with; in his time European interventionism was already becoming an issue. But that’s not as important here as the interpersonal relationships and the focus on loss and forgiveness. This is a gentle Tempest, all boings, bells, and the sound of birds.