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Theater review: 'The Tempest' at Barnsdall Park

July 1, 2009 |  4:00 pm


Ad-libbed puns and slapstick galore punctuate Independent Shakespeare Co.’s “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s magic-filled final play about an enchanted island inhabited by a powerful sorcerer, his pubescent daughter, a misshapen monster kept captive in a cave, and a host of airy spirits held in thrall.

Of course, given that particular cast of characters, “Tempest” is perhaps the most heavily parsed among all Shakespeare’s works by fascinated scholars in search of sexual subtexts and incestuous undercurrents. Those post-Freudian themes are largely underplayed by director Melissa Chalsma, perhaps to the detriment of a requisite mysteriousness. But though Chalsma’s checkered staging seldom inspires actual wonder, it proves a fun-filled opener for the company’s sixth season of free Shakespeare in Barnsdall Park. (Shall we risk another pun and call it “sprightly”?)

In an obvious homage to Elizabethan conventions, Chalmers keeps the design elements simple, using a minimum of props and the kind of crude theatrical effects employed in the early 1600s when the play was written.  The exception is the dress, which in Daniel Mahler’s

costume design is largely present-day, although the sparklingly attired and glitzy spirits would fit right in to a Mardi Gras parade.

As the action opens, the vessel carrying Alonso, King of Naples (JR Esposito), is beset by mischievous spirits under the command of Prospero (Joseph Culliton), a powerful sorcerer with a righteous grudge.  Alonso’s court includes his son, Ferdinand (Matthew Hurley), his brother, Sebastian (Danny Campbell), his chatty but loyal counselor, Gonzalo (Thomas Ehas), his tuba-tooting jester, Trinculo (Philip Briggs), and his former co-conspirator, Antonio (Ahmad Enani), with whom he colluded to usurp Prospero’s dukedom some dozen years ago.

Set adrift, Prospero and his little daughter, Miranda (Angel Parker), came ashore on an island inhabited only by the monstrous Caliban (Bobby Plasencia) and a host of airy spirits, chief of which is Ariel (Mary Guilliams), a sprite soon enlisted in Prospero’s magical service.  A charming pantomime sequence suffices for the riotous opening tempest.  As Alonso’s butler, Stephano (hilarious David Melville) staggers about with a tray of cocktails, the gentle motion of the ocean soon swells to a Titanic (again, every pun intended) upheaval.

Those looking for conventional character arcs may find Prospero’s lightning transition from the vengeful to the benign jarring, but Culliton bridges the gap with ease.  Certain innovations are inspired, such as Melville’s sudden shift from Chaplin clone to Hitler heavy, and Stephano and Trinculo’s pun-filled patter as they filch Prospero’s rich wardrobe. However, other circus-like elements – occasional juggling, a barely seen stilt-walker – seem more tacked-on than organic, and Ariel’s atonal sung sequences are more dirge-like than magical, in contrast to the otherwise lighthearted tone.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

The Tempest,” Independent Shakespeare Co. in Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.  7:30 p.m. Fridays-Sundays.  Ends Aug. 30.  Free, but reservations required. In repertory with “Henry V.”   For schedule: (323) 836-0288 or  Running time:  2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: Bobby Plasencia as Caliban. Credit: Peter Alton