The Tempest at CalShakes

On Friday Dave and I saw the second preview performance of The Tempest at California Shakespeare Theater. Tempest is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, but I thought this production was surprisingly playful and charming and a lot of fun.

The play is reduced to just eleven roles, and those eleven roles are played by just six people, five of them playing two parts each and the sixth playing just one. There are also three more actors dressed in black who are spirits assisting Ariel, but who speak no lines. The doubling of the roles is lively and fun and adds a bit of agreeable foolery to the play, which is so often done in a ponderous, portentous manner, or so it has seemed to me. In this production, the play has a whimsical lightness I haven’t seen it have before, and for the most part it suits the play well.

I thought the two standouts were Nicholas Pelczar and Michael Winters. Mr. Pelczar was especially deft somersaulting (both figuratively and, at times, literally) back and forth between the serious young lover Ferdinard and the drunken clown Trinculo, making two very different characters out of them and switching between them adroitly. Mr. Winters was just as deft in his own way, doubling as Prospero and Stephano and defining both characters very sharply. Either performance by itself would have been terrific; pulling off both in the same evening is remarkable.

And yet I felt all the same that that doubling, which kept Mr. Winters busy and required some quick changes of character at times, kept Prospero from having all the weight and power that he usually has. If only one part in the production is to go undoubled, I wonder why it isn’t Prospero, making use of the asymmetry in the scheme to put more focus on the character at the center of the play.

Instead, it’s the actor playing Alonso — a less important role than either Prospero’s or Stephano’s — who has no other part to play. What’s more, Alonso is played by James Carpenter, who has easily the most commanding stage presence in the cast. It seemed odd to me, and a missed opportunity to make better use of Mr. Carpenter. I wonder if there’s some technical reason I’m not seeing that it couldn’t have been Alonso and Stephano who were doubled instead.

Still, it was only the second preview, and things may have fallen better into their intended balance by opening.

The set and costumes and lighting and choreography (for Ariel and her attendant spirits) are all delightful — it’s an eye-filling show. The shipwreck at the beginning is a wonderful, imaginative, thrilling sequence. The moment near the end where Ariel is freed from her servitude at last is especially striking, bringing all those elements together for a few surprising moments of delight and beauty, and I’m not going to say any more about it than that.

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