“Tempest” in a Black Box Gently Opens Our Hearts

Right now in San Diego, the Old Globe is doing The Tempest. In a small Glendale warehouse unit, the Liminal Space Players are also doing The Tempest. Both shows star a woman as Prospera (not –o).

If you like Shakespeare, see the one in Glendale.

The Old Globe marshals hundreds of thousands of donor dollars to create lavish sets and costumes, including half a sailing ship for just the first scene. The Liminals deck their hall with ladders, milk crates, cinder blocks, and sheets. One reaches for the grandeur of Milan’s royal court. The other reaches for the play’s heart — Prospera, cast out of the court, crafting a world for herself and her baby daughter from her skill at magic and the rude materials on a desert island.

Charissa Adams

The Liminals’ magic fashions a world for us, and swiftly draws us in. We start in a storm at sea: all hands are lost. We then meet, scene by quick scene, the folks who inhabit the island — and those cast ashore by the waves. Everyone on board, it turns out, is saved. We smell a fish; Prospera explains. She has raised this storm not to kill, but to capture those who exiled her. (They were all sailing home from a royal  wedding.)

But let’s back up. After the shipwreck, the first being we meet — the first — is a young woman wild with grief because she has witnessed the offshore disaster and felt its victims’ terror. She is Prospera’s daughter, Miranda, now 15. Her home schooling may be rough, but she has clearly learned empathy.

The second person we meet is Prospera.  For generations, male actors have played a father’s protective strictness, and a duke’s anger; but Prospera is a mother first, a magician and royal exile after. Love for her daughter is her animating concern. All her creations flow from that love.

In the original play (the First Folio text), Prospero is a loving but jealous parent who journeys from revenge to forgiveness. At the end, he pardons all  who have wronged him, giving up his magical powers in apparent remorse.

In this Tempest, Prospera is plotting with her daughter’s future in mind. The storm she creates brings Prince Ferdinand (heir to the king who deposed her) face to face with Miranda; when the two fall in love, Prospera is so overjoyed she must be reminded of the justice she has yet to mete out. (Similarly, her stern parental  warnings to the pair are almost tongue-in-cheek.)

And when the lovers share their “island wedding,” Prospera speaks the first half of the famous farewell speech (usually all said at the play’s end). Thanking the natural world’s elves and fairies for their help, she bids them return to their wonted roles. Her prime goal achieved, she begins  letting go; hence the growing weariness with which she finishes her project. (The tiredness is in the text, but usually — unconvincingly — blamed on advancing age).

This Tempest is about empathy, the quick movement of the heart toward others. This is what powers Prospera’s love, Gonzaga’s secret actions to spare her and her baby, the romance of Miranda and Ferdinand, and the new friendship budding at the end between King Alonso and Prospera. It leads Prospera, seeing the miseries of those who plotted to destroy her, to embrace them. It may even be what binds the drunken fools Stephano and Trinculo together.

Empathy is a medicine we sorely need in our time, if we are to keep our civil life together. Bringing this medicine has been the theatre’s task since the Greeks, and even before. (More than 4,000 years ago, Sumerians enacted the drama of the goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld to comfort her grieving sister.)

This Tempest, barely cobbled together in a tiny black box, reminds us poignantly how fragile our human world is, its fabric woven from our souls and any humble gifts we bring. Director Riley Shanahan and his players are to be congratulated for finding the play’s heart, and for delivering it to ours.

The bold minimal set and clever costumes (most actors do double roles, needing flash-quick changes) are uncredited. So is the text editing. It all seems to have been collaboratively arrived at — bravo!

As for performances, aside from a bit of first-night nerves and early line-rushing, the actors all are solid, and many are impressive. Charissa Adams’ graceful, intelligent Prospera is both vulnerable and firmly rooted; capable of being moved to tears, yet able to strike fear with a glance, she orchestrates the world. As her servant Ariel, Kyla Kennedy’s tall athleticism and fierce (often mischievous) inner power contrast delightfully with Adams’ physical delicacy and calm, emphasizing both the magician’s power and the sprite’s restraint.

Christopher Morson gives us Alonso, king as timid bureaucrat, and a magnificent Stephano, inebriated on wine and ego. (Actors usually play drunks by trying to appear sober; Stephano is so far gone he doesn’t suspect it.) Harriette Feliz creates a Miranda who’s clear-minded and strong-willed — no dewy innocence on this virgin; her Gonzaga also  commands attention, and often makes sense, but is a hapless Humpty Dumpty, unable to stay upright. Both Morson and Feliz shift shape so deftly that I didn’t realize they were doubling until the end, when all four characters were onstage together.

Caliban is a prize role, and Benjamin McFadden brings boundless physical skills and energy to it; his monster is sweetly comic, only menacing when instincts overpower his weak intellect. McFadden also delivers an ineffectual plotter in Sebastian. Paige Henderson, an apt second fiddle, plots with him as Prospera’s treacherous sister; as Trinculo, she tipples goofily with Stephano.

If I had a couple of hundred dollars to waste, I might check out the Old Globe’s version. Happily, I do not. The Tempest, as mounted by Liminal Space Players, is the kind of theatre I live in LA for.
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The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, directed by Riley Shanahan.
Adapted and presented by Liminal Space Players, at 820 Thompson Ave., Glendale 91201.

June 24, Sunday (today) at 8:00,
June 29 (Friday) at 8:00,
and June 30 (Saturday) at 8:00.

Tickets: at the door.