An on-stage cello—sensitively played by Michal Palzewicz—is the secret weapon of this summer’s production of The Tempest. Conjuring a cascade of moods, even detailing the meaning of each scene, Palzewicz’s music and sound design injects crucial atmosphere and continuity into the production.
Drawing on the considerable musicomedic skills of her cast, director Miriam Laube has opted for a throwback lens of postmodern pastiche through which to consider the 400-year-old masterpiece. This strategy makes the challenging play accessible to young audiences raised on rap, hip-hop, Disney animation and lighter shades of RuPaul. Older audiences will instantly recognize other resources at play here, from cinema’s Forbidden Planet and Robinson Crusoe to television’s Gilligan’s Island.
Without a doubt, The Tempest has spawned countless offspring in the past four centuries, and the Santa Cruz Shakespeare version toggles among at least half a dozen of them. Indeed, many of the characters appear to be engaged in adjacent tellings of the tale, rather than a single vision. Part of this is due to the nature of what was considered populist fun and games in the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare himself seasons this odd play with crowd-pleasing stereotypes—power-hungry royals, invisible fairies with limitless powers, drunken fools and a young couple instantly falling in love. The play gives us three groupings of players: first, Prospero the magician and his daughter Miranda, shipwrecked on the island 12 years earlier, along with their attendant, the supernatural sprite Ariel, plus the misshapen monster Caliban. Next, thanks to a shipwreck caused by Prospero, we have a quartet of disoriented Italian nobles. Crude and comical servants of the nobility make up the third cast of characters.
Opting for entertainment rather than magic, this production keeps the action (much of it musical) moving right along with a riotous burlesque involving two bumbling shipwrecked servants, Trinculo (a nimble Patty Gallagher) and Stephano (Cedric Lamar, chewing the scenery with abandon), getting drunk with the island’s petulant monster Caliban (intriguingly interpreted by Jonathan Smoots). As they cavort, in another sector of the island, the grieving queen of Naples Alonso (Maggie Bofill, channeling Bette Davis), her sister Sebastian (Safiya Harris), Prospero’s nefarious brother Antonio (Charles Pasternak), and a trusted councilor Gonzalo (Ward Duffy) all appear to have stepped out of a Renaissance mural. Costumed in rich colors and gold braid, they swagger and preen and plot against each other.
Meanwhile, in Prospero’s laboratory, the island’s control center, Ariel (Jennie Greenberry, playing for laughs to the delight of the opening night’s audience) is enlisted in the plan to make a match between Miranda (Maya Mays) and Alonso’s son Ferdinand (Gustavo Flores).
Shakespeare has the blithe spirit Ariel sing light-hearted songs throughout the play, and this production utilizes the Broadway voice of Greenberry (clad in glittering teal) to help piece together scenes. This style of music-making will please audiences raised on Frozen and the Grammys.
As the action quickens, and Prospero is successful in drawing together Miranda and Ferdinand in a sweet, chaste engagement, Shakespeare’s play calls for an elaborate floor show, a lavish musical vignette in which gods and goddesses come forth to sing and dance in honor of the young couple. Updating this—abruptly—director Laube has her entire cast step out of character, which unfortunately is a spell-breaking jolt.
The Tempest is filled with memorable lines, from the oft-quoted “oh brave new world” speech to Prospero’s final, poignant statement that “we are such things as dreams are made on.”
At the play’s end, Laura Gordon as Prospero did rise to the occasion, performing with dignity and insight the rare and fine words the magus is given. So let’s just say that all’s well that ends well.
Despite some missteps, your experience of Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s current season won’t be complete without a viewing of The Tempest, with bewitching cello music and some smashing lighting-in-the-trees by Kent Dorsey.
‘The Tempest,’ a Santa Cruz Shakespeare production directed by Miriam Laube, runs through August 28 at the Audrey Stanley Grove. More info and tickets at santacruzshakespeare.org.