‘The Tempest’ opens to thunderous applause

tempest
Lance Huntley/Courtesy

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“The Tempest” is Shakespeare’s last play, and it’s his strangest. It dives headfirst into the stormy waters of magic, colonialism, the age of exploration and the dehumanization of enslaved people. Nancy Carlin’s production of this fascinating work, presented by the African-American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco, is fearless. It confronts the text and the subtext with aplomb, supported by some wonderful actors, and brings to the forefront issues of freedom, manumission and power.

“The Tempest” is, in many ways, a typical Shakespeare play: Shipwreck and misdirection make way for mix-ups and scenes of people in small groupings. This time, the ship carries Alonso, the king of Naples, and his retinue to the island where the deposed duke of Milan, Prospero the magician, lives marooned with his daughter, Miranda. The two are flanked by Prospero’s subhuman slave, Caliban, and his airy spirit-servant, Ariel. Prospero causes the wreck in order to right the betrayal of his former life, reclaim his title and place his daughter back in Neapolitan society. As Shakespeare said, all’s well that ends with a wedding, but Carlin’s vision lifts the finale out of the treacle and points it straight at the heart.

Prospero (Michael Gene Sullivan) is gentle and worldly, a gentleman slaveowner to the last. Sullivan brings to the role a classic Shakespearean diction and a nuanced understanding of the character. He is tender with his daughter but turns instantly cruel with Caliban. He is secretive when communicating with Ariel but feels no shame in his technomancy.

Miranda (Tavia Percia) is a wonderful mix of sheltered and importunate. She’s a sullen yet respectful teen with her father but wide-eyed and guileless with the island’s newcomers. Michael Wayne Turner is a revelation as Caliban, employing a dancer’s grace to turn his lithe body into something monstrous, scuttling sideways like a crab and addressing his master with blazing eyes. Turner’s skills burn a hole in this play, elevating the concept of slavery and the question of humanity to a discomfiting and provocative pitch.

Much of the comic relief in the show comes from Kelvyn Mitchell as Stephano and Jonah Katz as Trinculo. Stumbling drunk through much of the production, the duo finds moments to incorporate raucous nods to pop culture and rubber-faced physical comedy. Their slapstick effeminacy runs a little thin, but it still gets laughs. Drew Watkins is suave and pretty as Ferdinand, and Ponder Goddard is ethereal and spritely as Ariel, yet she conveys terrible longing. The ensemble is strong as a whole, and the effect is to produce balanced laughs against strange drama.

The adaptation itself is a little thin. Didactics in the program and online describe a corporate and technological interpretation of the long-departed witch Sycorax and an environmental commentary intended by the sets. But in effect, the garbage-buoyed island does not strike the modern audience as unlikely, and the text is not altered to reflect the idea that Prospero is a former CEO rather than duke. Substitutions of touch-screen controls for Prospero’s books and tools of magic are effective — but only to underscore his perceived cultural superiority over the native powers of Sycorax and Caliban. The message of a cutthroat corporate giant is muddled, told mostly in props and sublimated hints. Prospero’s circlet is copper wire, and Ariel’s tunic suggests robotics rather than ghosts. But the drama between Prospero as the technologically empowered colonialist and Caliban as the subjugated indigenous nonperson is rich and tense. Triangulated scenes between the two of them with Miranda as contested sexual pawn are white-hot, and Carlin makes unusual choices in the blocking and the way the show ends. If this is only her secondary intention, it is nonetheless her triumph.

This is an arresting staging of “The Tempest.” It is not perfect, but then again, no cloudless day should pass over this island of storms. Seeing this play is a moment of magical indulgence, and unlike the becalmed Caliban, letting in your indulgences is all that will set you free.

“The Tempest” runs through Nov. 9  at Buriel Clay Theatre in San Francisco.

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].