Productions in the intimacy of Oakland Theater Project’s venue continue to be among the most daring, provocative, and entertaining in the Bay Area. In taking on William Shakespeare’s political fantasy, “The Tempest,” the company offers a stunning, if somewhat confusing, rendering of this compact study of the illicit taking of power and land. In today’s environment, it is hard to ignore the parallels with Trump’s efforts to subvert democracy in the United States and the trumped-up Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan, but his position was seized by his brother Antonio, who was aided by Alonso, King of Naples. Exiled, Prospero settles on a desolate island with his young daughter, Miranda. Years later, Prospero uses his slave, the spirit Ariel, as the instrument of his magic to affect a shipwreck, marooning Antonio, Alonso, and their party on the little island as well. Prospero intrigues hoping to reclaim his dukedom and marry off Miranda to Alonso’s son, Ferdinand. Meanwhile, subversion and murder plots are thwarted. This Shakespeare play is classified as a comedy!
Director Michael Socrates Moran’s total artistic concept and execution are eye-and-ear popping. In Karla Hargrave’s set, the stage floor is an unadorned, reflective surface (easily seen as the audience is seated at stage floor level). Off the only side of the mirrored floor without audience, a blue wall, rocks, stumps, and primitive pier-like platforms define the island’s aquatic surroundings – a good mix of abstract and grounded visuals that offer function and appeal. Stephanie Anne Johnson’s lighting is spectacular in its variety as it depicts storm, calm, and the changing coloration of a seaside setting. Elton Bradman’s sound design also represents the chaos of the tempest exquisitely, though it does drown out dialogue at times. In addition, the show is punctuated with several brief, enchanting musical interludes that combine canned and live singing.
Acting is absolutely superb throughout. In particular, Adrian Roberts offers a commanding presence as Prospero, firm in his convictions. However, confusion results from five different actors each playing two roles (who sometimes share stage time in the original), a casting decision that is not specified by the playwright. Some of the combinations of roles can be symbolically interpreted, as Roberts plays Prospero, regally adorned with a flowing red train, as well as his coarse and accented slave Caliban, signifying class contrast. The innocent ingenue Miranda and the usurper Antonio, representing opposites in age, gender, and morality are both played Abril Centurión. Although scenes and some character entrances are announced, visual congestion can make it a bit difficult to follow plot details, especially for those who might not be prepared or familiar with the work.
The reverse conceit to one actor playing two roles is realized by casting Ariel with three actors, Sharon Shao, Romeo Channer, and Carla Gallardo, spritely in appearance and charming in manner, who perform simultaneously. Sometimes close together, sometimes apart – they take turns in speaking lines and writhe around the stage in very elaborated and coordinated movement. They can be seen as aspects of the same personality, but this device serves an additional purpose. As constituted by The Bard in a time of extreme male dominance, the roles in the play comprised of 10 males and one female, Miranda. By feminizing and replicating Ariel, plus having Antonio played by a female, a felicitous and reasonable gender balance is achieved.
The other three actors who also merit acknowledgement are Benôit Monin who portrays the weakness but also the kindness of Alonso; Nathaniel Andalis as Sebastian, who seems like a bumptious modern-day comic transported to a past era; and Kevin Rebultan as Ferdinand, who has the funniest schtick, including a mime of making love to a walking staff fashioned from a tree limb.
“The Tempest” was one of Shakespeare’s final plays, and the last of his great ones. It is uncommonly replete with moral themes of love, betrayal, conspiracy, reconciliation, power, family, and more. Shakespeare can be hard to follow in the best of circumstances, but because of the density of the issues and structure of this production, attentiveness is very important. Meanwhile, the visual and aural elements of the movement, acting, and staging effects of this fine production are so powerful that it is an experience just to let them wash over you – like attending an involved modern dance production or a play in an unfamiliar language that captivates beyond the meaning of the words.
“The Tempest,” written by William Shakespeare, is produced by Oakland Theater Project and plays on their stage at 1501 Martin Luther King Way, Oakland, CA through March 13, 2022.