Imagination abounds in Oakland Theater Project’s ‘The Tempest’

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Oakland Theater Project/Courtesy

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Walking into Oakland Theater Project’s “The Tempest” at Flax Art & Design feels more like stepping into an interactive art exhibit than into a theater. As audience members take their seats, the play’s cast is already performing a prologue at center stage, floating in “a dreamscape, a purgatory, an imagined island imprisoned.”

This mysterious, otherworldly opening immediately transports the audience into the play’s setting and sets the tone for the production ahead: a truly ethereal interpretation of a Shakespearean classic with immersive staging and clever, modern touch of sound and lighting design. Full of ambitious creative decisions, Oakland Theater Project’s “The Tempest” feels innovative and contemporary yet timeless.

With each new Shakespeare adaptation attempting to bring something new to these familiar stories, there comes the challenge of introducing original elements while preserving the essence of the Bard. Oakland Theater Project fulfills this balance, and then some — the changes implemented in its version of “The Tempest” not only add fresh twists and color but also enhance the preexisting images and themes.

Some of these refreshing choices are in the casting. This production sees a total of eight actors playing 13 roles, plus a few more minor characters thrown in throughout the play. This means that each actor is playing at least two characters, increasing the difficulty of staging and directing. Although this results in one of the play’s few and minor shortcomings, this also makes possible one of the play’s most brilliant choices — actor Adrian Roberts play both the sorcerer Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, and Prospero’s slave, the half-human, half-monster Caliban.

Director Michael Socrates Moran explains this decision in his “From the Director” note. Recognizing the prominence of power hierarchies in the play — and their fragility on the island — he took advantage of this unexpected pairing to further explore this theme.

The casting choice encourages the audience to question the differences between the most powerful character and the man reduced to his property, and it necessitates creative staging to execute the powerful scene in which the two discuss Caliban’s servitude. Carried through with Roberts’ phenomenal acting, the performance is daring, haunting and well worth witnessing first-hand.

Ariel, a magical spirit also enslaved to Prospero, is now broken up into three Ariels played by Sharon Shao, Romeo Channer and Carla Gallardo. With three actors playing Ariel and various other spirits, the production allows for more captivating dance and song, devices that frame Ariel’s storytelling. The movements of three individuals rather than one actor increase the expanse of Prospero’s magic and power throughout the play and make the character of Ariel feel even more ephemeral and spritely.

Many aspects of “The Tempest” deserve praise, including the set and lighting design. On one side of the stage, a stream of sand occasionally falls from the ceiling and onto a suspended chess board, producing a hissing sound that helps give the illusion of being seaside. A particularly clever feature of the lighting design is the spotlights’ reflection off of the metallic stage, softly shining as wavy light beams across all walls of the room like a sun gleaming across water. 

Everything in Oakland Theater Project’s “The Tempest” is presented thoughtfully. The comedy lands; the tragedy resonates. The eeriness and unfamiliarity of Prospero’s magical island paired with the humanity of those stranded on its shores conjure an unsettling but inviting world. Perhaps the play’s real magic is its ability to absorb audiences into its mystical landscape —  where waves and tensions crash, love and vengeance dance on the sand.

Joy Diamond covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].