Monday, July 3, 2023

The Tempest (Antaeus Theatre Company’s 2023 Production) Theatre Review

production photo by Frank Ishman
Antaeus Theatre Company delivers what is probably the most fun production of The Tempest I’ve seen. And the fun begins the moment the audience enters the theatre, with the cast already on stage, jamming. Yes, jamming. There is a drum kit and an upright piano in the center of the stage, and there is an electric guitar and some other percussion instruments throughout the set. The play has a modern setting, sort of, with a worn brick wall upstage and a spiral staircase stage right of the piano and drum kit, and with a series of microphones set up downstage, as well as on a table. I say “sort of,” because the real setting here is our collective imagination, which is timeless. For the magic of the play is here, undeniably, amid the modern instruments, props and clothing.

At the start of the performance, Miranda (Anja Racić) leads the group in a delicious jazzy number, while Prospero (Peter Van Norden) enters quietly behind her, taking a seat at the table before his book. Peter Van Norden just a few months ago played Gonzalo in a different production of The Tempest, and here gives yet another phenomenal performance. He has become one of my favorite actors to watch on the stage, and leads a rather extraordinary cast in this production. As the song continues, Prospero makes a motion with his hands while reading from his book, and suddenly the lights change and we are in the storm of the first scene of the play. The suddenness of the storm catches the audience by surprise as much as it does the characters on stage, a thrilling moment. The storm’s abruptness, and the way it interrupts the merriment, is a great way of introducing the element of magic immediately, showing that this is no natural storm. The actors deliver their lines into the microphones, facing the audience, and there is the sense that we are witnessing the recording of a radio drama, particularly as the actors use small hand percussion instruments to create the noises of the storm and the boat creaking and so on as they speak their lines. It is an unusual approach, and creates a rather compelling effect.

When Prospero repeats, “No harm,” the sounds of the storm cease, surprising Miranda. As Prospero relates his tale to her, the lights focus on those two characters, but the other actors remain on stage, watching from the shadows. Then when a character is mentioned by Prospero, he or she steps forward, with both a sound and light cue accompanying the introduction. It is a playful way to introduce some of the characters, and also helpful to those who might not be already familiar with the play. Interestingly, after Antonio (Bernard K. Addison) is thus introduced, Miranda seems to catch glimpses him, and it is her looks to him that lead to Prospero’s repeated questions as to whether she is paying attention to his tale. Also helpful to anyone unfamiliar with the play, parts of the tale are acted out while Prospero speaks to Miranda. For example, we see Antonio slip Alonso (Adrian LaTourelle) some money downstage when Prospero speaks of “tribute.” As fun as this is, and as quickly as this production moves (and it does seem to fly), the performance knows exactly when it needs to focus on more intimate exchanges, such as that absolutely touching moment when Prospero tells Miranda she was “a cherubin.” And later when Ariel asks Prospero, “Do you love me, master?

The relationship between Ariel (Elinor Gunn) and Prospero is immediately clear. We hear in the way Elinor Gunn delivers the lines “Not a hair perish’d” and “Safely in harbor” that Ariel is a bit tired of the questioning. After all, when has she failed Prospero? And when is Prospero going to come through with his end of the deal? I love the annoyance in her voice when she recalls, “once/Thou call’dst me up at midnight.” Who wouldn’t be annoyed at that? And her annoyance increases when she asks, “Is there more toil?” Though she is a spirit, there is also a very strong human component to this Ariel. Caliban (JD Cullum) enters crawling under the table. And on his “was first mine own king,” there is something regal in his delivery, and in his posture, which is interesting. Though he will be called a monster throughout the play, and though he has a fuzzy tail, Caliban, like Ariel, has a strong human quality. And he has within himself the possibility of power, a hint of which the audience sees quite early on. In this production, the “Abhorred slave” speech is delivered by Miranda, following the text, whereas in many productions those lines are given to Prospero.

When Ariel leads Ferdinand (Peter Mendoza) about with her song, she is absolutely delighted with the effect she has on him. She is enjoying herself immensely, which is wonderful. Prospero watches the action from his spot at the table. Miranda also remains at the table, but facing away from the action. Peter Mendoza is particularly good when Ferdinand meets Miranda, first acting out his speech, assuming she does not understand his language, then thrilled to find she does. After Miranda says “the first/That ere I sigh’d for,” Ferdinand then sighs himself. It is a knife, not a sword, that Ferdinand draws, leading to Prospero saying “put thy weapon up” rather than “sword up.” There is a cute moment then when Ariel catches Ferdinand’s knife in a basket, while wearing protective glasses. And later I love how Ferdinand tries to show off for Miranda, going about his log-carrying work with more enthusiasm. There is an interesting use of the microphones in that scene as well, with Ferdinand slowly getting closer to Miranda, microphone by microphone, until they share one.

Three of the characters who are male in the text become female in this production. Obviously, as already mentioned, there is Ariel, who is usually portrayed as female. But also Gonzalo and Trinculo here become Gonzala and Trincula. Sometimes problems and complications arise when a character’s gender is switched (for example, a female Malvolio in a 2019 production of Twelfth Night certainly changed things). But that is not the case here. Even Miranda’s lines about “How many goodly creatures are there here” seem to lose none of their power. And besides, Saundra McClain and Erin Pineda give such great performances as Gonzala and Trincula respectively that there is no lingering doubt about the wisdom of the change in gender. When Alonso tells Gonzala “My son is lost,” he stresses the word “son,” giving the impression that his son is more important to him than is his daughter. And when he says, “No, no he’s gone,” the line is spoken with a resigned sadness that is touching. And when Gonzala says “all men idle,” her gesture includes those in the audience. Her “And women too” has a different sense, a different sort of humor, since she is a woman. It works quite well. Antonio and Sebastian (John Allee, who also plays the upright piano) enjoy teasing Gonzala, not taking her, or any of this, seriously. When Gonzala and Alonso sleep, it is in a seated position on the piano bench. I love Antonio’s delivery of “O what might,” for we clearly see his thoughts then, how they’re bending toward mischief. Sebastian’s “Draw thy sword” becomes “Draw thy knife” in this production, with both Sebastian and Antonio carrying knives in their pockets.

Trincula is a delight, delivering her lines almost as if she were performing standup comedy. The drummer (John Harvey) even gives her a rim shot at one point. When she hides, she lies next to Caliban, not on top of him as is sometimes done. In an interesting bit of double-casting, Adrian LaTourelle plays Stephano in addition to Alonso. (And if your mind immediately jumps to the play’s final scene and wonders how one actor accomplishes both roles, well, I was wondering the same thing, and was delighted by the solution). Stephano wears a traditional cook’s outfit, including the hat, and is hilarious as he enters, singing. Caliban belches, leading to Stephano’s “How now, mooncalf?” Caliban then takes up the guitar to sing his “Farewell, master” song, a rousing, rocking number. When Caliban, Trincula and Stephano next enter, they are drunk, and Caliban and Trincula fight over a microphone. Because both Ariel and Trincula are female, it is much easier for Ariel to fool Caliban by imitating Trincula’s voice when taunting, “Thou liest.” At one point Trincula bites Caliban’s tail, adding humor then to Stephano’s “Now forward with your tale.” Caliban has a sweetness to his speech when talking about the sounds of the island. And, when alone, he raises his arms, as Prospero had done earlier, as if he is able to command or orchestrate those sounds, which is a wonderful touch. Again, it makes the audience think about how Caliban might have been had Prospero and Miranda never come to the island, reminding us of his earlier line “was first mine own king.”

When Ariel delivers her “You are three men of sin” speech, she wears a feathered mask. And on her delivery of “did supplant good Prospero,” the three look up in surprise and recognition. During the masque for Miranda and Ferdinand, Ariel sings with the band, and the actors hold globes which Prospero with his magic lights up. They all then join in song, a beautiful moment. And so when Prospero says, “These our actors,” there is another layer to that line. Peter Van Norden’s delivery of that famous speech is incredibly moving. And when he tells Ariel, “This was well done, my bird,” the line works even better because of her having earlier worn that feathered mask. Another of the production’s most striking moments comes when Ariel says “were I human,” for it is then that Prospero turns to face her, and a change comes over him. The line “The rarer action is/In virtue than in vengeance” really stands out in this performance, and you could feel people in the audience taking it in when Prospero spoke it, seeing how it applies to their own lives. It is a good thing to keep in mind in these divisive and violent times. When Prospero tells his brother, “I do forgive/Thy rankest fault,” he embraces Antonio. But Antonio does not return the embrace. Rather, he removes the ring which signifies possession of the dukedom and lets it fall to the ground. Interestingly, it is Sebastian who picks it up and hands it to Prospero, showing that Sebastian but not Antonio redeems himself, a really nice choice. On Miranda’s “O brave new world/That has such people in ‘t,” she takes in the audience.

So how does Adrian LaTourelle manage to be both Alonso and Stephano in that final scene? Well, let’s just say he gets a bit of help, magic help, from Ariel. As for Caliban, this production has done a thorough job of showing him to have some inner strength, some sovereignty. And that pays off well in the play’s final moments, when Prospero, rather than breaking his staff and burying it in the earth, passes it to Caliban, thus returning the island to him. Interestingly, Prospero’s “draw near” is delivered to the other characters, who then all see Ariel. It is an absolutely wonderful ending to an extraordinary and incredibly fun performance.

This production of The Tempest was directed by Nike Doukas, and it runs through July 30, 2023. Visit the theatre’s website for the complete schedule. There is one short intermission, coming at the end of Act III scene i (but don’t dillydally in the lobby because you’ll miss some of the fun as the band strikes up again and the cast engages in some dancing). Antaeus Theatre Company performs at Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center at 110 East Broadway in Glendale, California.

1 comment:

  1. Michael, I loved reading your review. This was really a different type of performance. The actors were on their game. When they faced the audience and delivered their lines I felt as if a were a casting director watching them bring these characters to life with more than just a speech, but with physicality, and facial expressions.