The Arts
August 8-15, 2007

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'The Tempest'

Photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo
Master and Servant: Ariel (Aric Martin, left) and Prospero (James R. Winker) negotiate the choppy waters of vengeance and loyalty in 'The Tempest.'

A Dark and Stormy Night

Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 'The Tempest' glistens with nuanced performances

By Valerie Ross

Shakespeare's The Tempest is a rich and magical play, overflowing with mythopoetic elements. The current production in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's outdoor festival glen is an elegant and highly enjoyable experience that brings great clarity and comedy to this often complex and multilayered story.

Set on a desert island ruled by Prospero (James R. Winker), the former Duke of Milan and now resident lord of magical spirits, the show opens with a dramatic storm raised intentionally by Prospero to cause a shipwreck and force a band of Italian noblemen to his shore. They are his enemies, and now is the time for his long-awaited revenge. Accompanied on the island by his plucky teenage daughter Miranda (Barbara Suiter), his powerful magical servant Ariel (Aric Martin) and his eloquent slave Caliban (Omar Ricks), Prospero's thirst for vengeance is poignantly modified by their positive influences upon him. Themes of freedom, forgiveness and redemption mitigate his bitterness, and director Kirsten Brandt handles the final resolution of the play with exceptional depth and compassion.

Much of the production's success is due to the excellent and absorbingly understated performance by Winker as Prospero. He is completely believable as a wronged man and a concerned father with none of the pseudo-mystical bombast that often undermines Prospero's gravitas.

Some of the strongest acting in the play comes, enjoyably, from the villains. Antonio (Ian Merrill Peakes) and Sebastian (Leith Burke), the usurping brothers of Prospero and the stolid Alonso, King of Naples (Kenneth Albers), engage in some of the tightest witty banter in the play, providing a dark, cynical edge to this otherworldly fantasy. Their desire for power is both believable and deadly.

Similarly, Barbara Suiter as Miranda brings a delightfully scrappy energy to her role; she is more of a rebellious wild child than the meek and obedient Miranda so often seen onstage. Her impetuous wooing of charming young Ferdinand, the shipwrecked Prince of Naples (Jon Liddiard), is a pleasure to watch, and her interactions with her father, Prospero, are believable in their trusting tenderness.

The comic center of The Tempest has always been its lowest characters, the subordinates Stephano (Álvaro Mendoza) and Trinculo (Daniel T. Parker), whose subplot cunningly mirrors the themes of usurpation, redemption and right rulership that concern the noblemen on the other side of the island. Once again, a refreshingly understated performance by Mendoza as Stephano, here portrayed as a semigenteel drunkard instead of the usual bumbling oaf, is refreshing. Together he and Parker breathe fresh life into the play's most broadly humorous scenes.

One of the most challenging decisions facing a director of The Tempest is how to represent the magical elements in the play. Aric Martin's Ariel, his near-naked gymnast's body encased in silvery blue paint, wearing a silver wig and draped in a billowing silver cloak, brings a whiff of Restoration masques to the design of the production, which is an effective contrast to the otherwise modern costumes of the show. Bathed in uncanny blue light, his voice amplified for greater mystery, he consistently brings a strange and absorbing presence to each scene, particularly when causing mischief among the Italians. In contrast, his trusting sincerity when he asks Prospero, "Do you love me, master?" joined with his well-earned pleas for freedom, make Ariel one of the emotional centers of the show.

Ariel's earthy nemesis, Caliban, the rightful owner of the island, now enslaved to Prospero, seems unsure whether he's meant to be a noble savage or a primitive clown. Luckily, Omar Ricks's majestic voice declaiming many of the most gorgeous lines of the play redeems the encumbrance of his overly elaborate, raggedy dreadlocked costume. It is also worth mentioning that this production's resolution of the Prospero/Caliban relationship is exceptionally powerful.

In many ways, this show seems deeply influenced by the intrepid optimism of the elderly councilor to the King, Gonzalo (Nick Ullett). In a spritely and undaunted performance, Ullett infuses the plays darker moments with his sunny perspective so convincingly that by the end of the show, when Prospero beseeches the audience to forgive him and set him free, as he has forgiven and set free all those beholden to him, his earnestness is real, and we are moved beyond the theatrical conventions of the moment. Freedom is not a gift to be given or received lightly, and this show deserves our full appreciation.

'The Tempest' plays in the Festival Glen at UCSC through Sept. 2. Tickets are $26-$40. (831.459.2159)

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