Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Side Show
And thus opens the impressive, engrossing, and highly entertaining production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest by Stanford TAPS (Theatre and Performance Studies department). This final play of the Bard's that has multiple themes and lines that can be seen as the Great One's farewell to his career is imaginatively and magically directed by the much-awarded and nationally known playwright Amy Freeda gift for both the audience and the student cast of seventeen. The director has taken this group of engineer, computer science, TAPS, and even undeclared majors ranging from freshmen to masters levels and shaped them into a fine-tuned ensemble of accomplished actors who skillfully tap (no pun intended) into the musical, whimsical, romantic and redemptive threads and themes of The Tempest.
Prospero has been usurped of his rightful role as Duke of Milan by his evil brother Antonio and is now in his twelfth year in exile on a remote, idyllic island with his daughter Miranda. He has acquired many magical powers through his love of books and learning (those powers being of "white" magic, valued highly in Shakespeare's day, as opposed to the shunned, sinful powers of "black" magic). By lucky happenstance, the now-unlawful Duke Antonio along with the complicit King Alonso are en route on the sea nearby, just in time for Prospero to conjure up the opening scene's horrific storm, sending them (unharmed via his magic and that of his captured, comical spirit Ariel) to the shores of his island abode. With them, too, is the king's handsome and innocent son Ferdinand, whom Prospero has designs to wed to his Miranda (who has never seen another man other than her father and the island's deformed son of a witch, Caliban, half-fish, half-man).
But first, Ferdinand must prove himself worthy; the King and his party must endure much hardship to ready them for eventual forgiveness by Prospero; and there must be time for hilarious shenanigans and many punsthe likes of which Shakespeare is so famous. And all this has to happen in real time approximating the length of the play (a first for Shakespeare in his final bow to theatre).
This Stanford TAPS production is blessed to have a creative team that any theatre in America would likely be thrilled to welcome. Currently teaching set design at Stanford, Erik Flatmo has taken, it appears, a sketch of the Blackfriars Theatre of London (where The Tempest was purported once to be staged) and created a massive, two-level set with two side balconies, closely resembling that sketch. The set easily becomes a ship, with a back curtain that opens to reveal a beautiful mural that then evokes an island's lushness.
Adding to the scene are illusions of reflecting water, lightning, and eclipsing day's sun through the fabulous lighting design of James Sherwood, an actual student with already much experience in his four years of Stanford. The clapping sounds of the storm, the calls of unseen jungle birds, and the pervasive music that floats throughout this island's supernatural atmosphere are just some of the gems masterfully produced by nationally known sound designer Cliff Caruthers. Veteran of twenty-five years in theaters and classrooms is Connie Strayer, whose fantastical costumes create spirits and fairies, a monstrous villain, Jacobean nobility, and the island's noble sorcerer (Prospero). Another nationally recognized and utilized artist, choreographer Art Manke, joins this illustrious team to create playful, often mischievous movements and dances for the ever-roaming spirits of the isle. The final result is a production that is visually and aurally sensational.
Throughout the cast of university students are a number of memorable standouts. Chief among them are the actors portraying Prospero's two subservient, fellow island inhabitants, Ariel and Caliban. With her webbed hands, blue-tinted and airy hair, and a light one-piece outfit that gives her a winged appearance, Lea Zawada is an Ariel full of perk, humor, and light-hearted mischieftotally devoted to the man who freed her from where she was imprisoned in a tree, but also constantly asking Prospero for her promised freedom. When she sings, she has a voice light and crisp as dew's mist. When she leads drunken, visiting islanders, and fellow spirits in a roaming line of Macarena, she is deliciously funny.
Opposite in nature is the savage Caliban, with a name scholars believe comes from a mixture of "cannibal" and "Caribbean"with Shakespeare probably playing on the Old World's interest in the mysterious and wild New World. Hamzeh Daoud bends, twists and crawls on all fours, dragging his blotched body and seaweed-like hair as he growls and groans the misery Caliban so evidently feels under the control of Prospero. With all his plotting and evil intentions, Mr. Daoud as Caliban evokes our sympathy as we see that Shakespeare and Prospero are clearly leaning toward the belief that it is the duty of the educated European to conquer and convert the native savagea tenet that a contemporary audience comes nearer rejecting.
Trinculo (the king's jester), now separated from the main group of marooned wanderers, happens upon a startled Caliban, who hides his stinking, dirty body under a ragged blanket. This gives both Caliban and Fiona Maguire as Trinculo a chance to create a ridiculously funny scene in which Trinculo, frightened by a sound of someone/something approaching from the woods, hides under the same blanket, on top of but in the opposite direction of Caliban. In one of the many scenes so well directed by Amy Freed, the four-legged, two-headed new monster thus created is a mystery and a fright at the same time for Stefano (a drunken butler of the King played by Eliseo Valerio), who arrives drinking rum discovered from the ship's wreckage. The resulting brouhaha of the three and their subsequent drunken decision to take over the island (but only after killing Prospero) leads them on an alcohol-enhanced journey where encounters with Prospero's spirits will result in many opportunities for huge laughter by the fully amused audience.
Notable performances are given also by Emma Rothenberg as the rather naïve and totally curious (especially when it comes to men) Miranda and by Miles Petrie as the blond and Hollywood handsome Ferdinand (presumed drowned by the grieving king who is still wandering on another part of the island). Of course they fall in love at first glance but must wait for that first real kiss until Prospero teaches Ferdinand a little more humility through some wood-hauling servitude. The two are particularly cute as they play approach/avoidance toward that first smackeroo, with Prospero watching a little embarrassed but totally pleased from afar.
Tim Schurz plays the role of Prospero with an air of dignity, authority, and omniscience full of calm and calculation. His switch from revenge against the King and his brother to reconciliation and forgiveness happens quickly from a remark made by Ariel about others' suffering and is marked step by step by Mr. Schurz leaving behind the mode of sorcerer and regaining a more human posture and ambience. Prospero's performance is well acted and, again, well-directed.
One of the more remarkable aspects of this production is the 55-page program each audience member receives upon entering. The colorful booklet is a trove of well-written essays and informative illustrations about this last play of Shakespeare and its history since the initial performance. (The program is also generously available online.)
In the end, Prospero comes to the stage's edge and entreats the audience to free him from the telling of the story and from the island of his exile with the sound of their applause. Of course, many see this as William Shakespeare's entreaty for his own release and reward from a career of entertaining London's highest and lowest society members. For us lucky enough to see this Stanford TAPS performance of The Tempest, the request is a welcome nudge to give a well-earned ovation to the entire team that Amy Freed has assembled of students and professionals alike.
The Tempest continues through March 11, 2017, by Stanford TAPS at Pigott Theatre, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford, CA. Tickets are available online at web.stanford.edu/dept/taps.