All Shakespeare plays were once done in outdoor theaters in the daylight, but certain works lend themselves best to being done in the open air. Along with A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest is one of them. CalShakes' opening production of the season, directed by Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone, is as funny, light-hearted, and playful a production of the play as we've ever seen, and outshines the one the theater put on just a few years ago.
The play has all the fun elements of Shakespeare's lighter works drunken clowns, magic, a "monster," love at first sight, and even a bit of flying. And it takes place on an island, home to a wizard named Prospero who was once a wealthy Italian heir, and thus feels appropriate on an outdoor stage. The cast in this version is only six actors, each playing two roles, with the help of three "sprites," who are actually dancers who aid with some of the actors entrances and exits.
Moscone has imagined a Prospero (Michael Winters) who is gruff but not unlikeable, human in every sense except that he carries a large staff and has the power to cast spells and silence people at will. Prospero is aided by a spirit named Ariel (played beautifully by the diminutive Erika Chong Shuch, who also served as choreographer), whom he freed from a curse in which a witch had trapped her in a tree. Because of this, she must do Prospero's bidding for a year, and she helps shipwreck Prospero's brother, Antonio (Catherine Castellanos) and Alonso, King of Naples (local every-king James Carpenter), after Prospero raises a great tempest on the sea in the opening scene.
We won't get into the rest of the plot, which is complicated, involving Prospero wanting revenge on his brother, and his daughter Miranda (played by a glowing and earnest Emily Kitchens) falling in love with one of the men aboard Alonso's boat. There's also Calaban (also played by Catherine Castellanos), a smelly, deformed man who serves as slave to Prospero and causes some trouble. Suffice it to say that the double-casting and gender-bending adds to the confusion if you're a bottle of wine in and you don't know the play backwards and forwards. But it's still a joy to watch, shot through with levity by some well staged slapstick, and with the added delight of Ariel floating on and off stage as though she were actually aloft we especially loved the visual, in the final act, when she is finally freed and makes her final exit.
Moscone's sense of humor and good taste shine through in every scene, and the production is buoyed by a beautiful set from designer Emily Greene stacks of trunks, jagged boards like the deck of a ship, and piles of books reminding us constantly of Prospero's journey from duke to dark island warlock. It's a series of pleasant surprises how Moscone uses the set throughout, having characters enter the stage via trunks and wardrobes, and at least one trunk is magically bottomless, with the auditory illusion of a sloshing sea below. All these elements come together to create a spellbinding night of theater, and an auspicious start to another season of CalShakes.
CalShakes is accessible via the second exit after the tunnel on Highway 24, or via BART. A shuttle picks up theatergoers from Orinda BART every fifteen minutes or so before showtime. And always, you're encouraged to bring food and wine for a pre-show picnic and bring your wine into the amphitheater. But dress warmly!