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The decision resonates like few in Shakespeare

Caught between avenging “high wrongs” or choosing the “rarer action” of virtue

The Tempest: It's as if time and space collapsed, and the play is happening then and now.
  • The Tempest: It's as if time and space collapsed, and the play is happening then and now.

Prospero has every reason to be furious. When he was Duke of Milan, he was a passive ruler, one who would much rather study “white magic” than enact an edict. Then, twelve years before Shakespeare’s The Tempest begins, Prospero’s scheming brother Antonio usurped the dukedom. He plunked Prospero and his three-year-old daughter Miranda on a boat and cast them adrift on the Mediterranean. Somehow, Gonzalo, a Neapolitan Lord loyal to Prospero, stocked the boat with food, clothing, and Prospero’s books about magic — a feat of magic in itself.

Now Prospero and Miranda are on an unnamed island. He has control over Ariel, a sprite, and Caliban, half-man, half-whatever, and, it would seem, the island itself. This home court advantage offers ideal conditions for full moon vengeance. Not only that, Antonio is headed his way, along with his son Ferdinand, Alonso, King of Naples, nobles, sailors, a clown, and a drunken butler. Payback time!

But is vengeance in his nature? He has a gentle soul. But he lost everything except his daughter and his books, and treats Ariel and Caliban like indentured servants. Plus his magic’s working (his “charms crack not”), and Ariel has tamed his enemies to the point of penitence. If Prospero could just see how they suffer, Ariel says, his “affections would become tender,” and he’d release them. That’s what Ariel would do, “were I human.”

Prospero is caught between avenging his enemies’ “high wrongs” with a bloodbath, or choosing the “rarer action” of virtue. Good versus evil, angel versus demon. His decision resonates like few in Shakespeare.

Not counting Miranda, the original Tempest had an all-male cross section of humanity, from a King (Alonso of Naples, who connived against Prospero and against whom others now connive), to Stephano and Trinculo, a butler and a clown “red-hot with drinking” (who connive with Caliban to kill Prospero). Ferdinand, prince of Naples, and Miranda come from warring houses. Without Prospero’s magic they could become star-crossed lovers. Ariel and Caliban bookend the gathering, one a sprite, the other, a mannish beast.

Instead of all-male actors — since a young man would have played Miranda in Shakespeare’s day — Old Globe director Joe Dowling expands the social possibilities. Prospero is a woman, “Prospera,” played by Kate Burton. Lizan Mitchell, who is African-American, plays honest old counsellor Gonzala. A multi-racial cast gives The Tempest a 21st century update.

The Prospera idea is not new. Miss Sarah Siddons essayed the role in the early 19th century, as did Sarah Bernhardt and Helen Mirren, who said a woman could play Prospero “without having to change a word.” One of my favorite local productions was the Sean Murray-directed Tempest on the Silver Strand at Coronado, way back when. Linda Castro played Prospera with all her heart.

Dowling’s production also points to the decision. Along the way he fills the stage with theatricality, often reminding us that we are in a theater as well. Or, on Alexander Dodge’s set, backstage in an old warhorse of a house. The second tier could be an Italian villa in decline, or box seats in a balcony. Downstairs, piles of books, some up to six feet, buttress the walls. Frayed theater seats, once red, now a musty pink, face the audience as if we were the play (but isn’t all the world a stage?). Plus heaps of grimy old stuff: parts of wooden chairs, other pokey things. The stage floor is mostly boards, though splotches of sand suggest a beach. If it is a backstage, the dilapidated theater’s “charms” may have long since been “o’erthrown.”

The set’s a hybrid of the theatrical and the actual, including radio sound effects for the storm. David Israel Reynoso’s costumess sport a similar mix. Ariel, who can be invisible, wears a neck-to-toe spandex body suit with a galaxy of silver sequins. Silmy green Caliban could be human or the beast from 20,000 fathoms. The others dress from late-Renaissance to the Supremes. It’s as if time and space collapsed, two eras fused, and the play is happening then and now.

Talent in the cast runs deep. And it starts with Robert Foxworth. He plays King Alonso, addled and in as much danger as Prospera — since Antonio (well-spoken Rene Thornton, Jr.,) and Sebastian (conniving Daniel Ian Joeck) want to assassinate him. Completely grounded, vocally rich, alert in every moment, Foxworth gives a master class on acting Shakespeare.

Though Lizan Mitchell should vary her decibels — she mostly shouts — as “Gonzala,” Robert Dorfman and Andrew Weems turn Stephano and Trinculo into an expert comedy team (and Dorfman’s many reactions are a hoot). Nora Carroll and Sam Avishay create an innocent tandem as Miranda and Ferdinand.

Early on opening night, Kate Burton was overly gestural as “Prospera,” extended arms apparently stretching for size. But once she settled in, she played a Prospero/a I’ve never seen before. Although she’s been gravely wronged, Prospera has an innate kindness. Being angry disturbs her, since, even in exile, she isn’t used to it. As the play progresses, the new feeling grows. She treats Miranda with tough love, is harsh to Caliban, and envisions final vengeance. In Burton’s excellent performance, Prospera almost takes on a vehement second nature. Then, in the crucial moment, she stops the cycle of violence —for herself, at least, if not the others.

The Tempest, by William Shakespeare.

Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park.

Directed by Joe Dowling; cast: Kate Burton, Robert Foxworth, Philippe Bowgen, Nora Carroll, Robert Dorfman, Manoel Feliciano, Sam Avishay, Lizan Mitchell, Andrew Weems, Daniel Ian Joeck, Yadira Correa; scenic design, Alexander Dodge, costumes, David Israel Reynoso, lighting, Phillip S. Rosenberg, sound, Jonathan Deans, original music, Keith Thomas.

Playing through July 22: Tuesday through Sunday at 8 pm.

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