Nearly every evening through July 22, “a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning is heard” in Balboa Park, caused by a gender-switching, glitter-swirling production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, at the Old Globe’s outdoor theatre.
‘Tis wonderfully wicked to open a Shakespeare Festival with a shipwreck.
Sitting in the dark, surrounded by tall trees, we are transported to a remote island where a sorcerer conjures a storm. We grip our blanket as desperate mariners endure the tempest, and we flinch when they shake a metal thunder sheet. We turn our ears closer when they snap their fingers to produce the blip-blop sounds of rain.
In Shakespeare’s time, magic was taboo, but with all the magic of theater, Joe Dowling directs the 400 year-old fairy tale about betrayal and forgiveness with contemporary flashes; it’s as if he’s randomly spun the wheel of a time machine several times.
Strange language and characters we remember from high school lit class are all here, and those themes of freedom and confinement, magic and reality. Yet, this production has mirrored sequins and greater emotional depth because the sorcerer Prospero is recast as a woman and mother.
Instead of Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, actress Kate Burton becomes a loving, and controlling, Prospera, a protective mother dressed in gabardine slacks. She’s known for many stage and TV roles, as well as her famous father, actor Richard Burton. (He played Cariban in the 1960s Tempest film).
It’s important to note that in Shakespeare’s day, there were no female actors, and women’s roles were created for young men and boys. The French actress Sarah Bernhardt played the male hero in Hamlet in 1899. Many more have crossed boundaries ever since, such as Helen Mirren as Prospera in the 2010 film.
Burton’s Prospera demands that we view the character and her relationships in new light. She’s a commanding Supermom who makes promises and casts spells. Dressed in a sparkling magic cape and business suit, she delivers the ancient language with crisp and natural enunciation. We witness her evolution from anger to mercy, marked by expressive hand gestures that direct our focus.
Without shame, she explains to her 15-year-old daughter Miranda (played by an adoring Nora Carroll) that they are marooned on the island because of her rotten brother Antonio and complicit King Alonso of Naples. To restore Miranda’s royal place, Prospera conjures a tempest. She wants to kill off a boatload of people who have wronged her. It’s her brand of “rough justice.”
Miranda is surprisingly cheerful for a teenager who has no friends or internet, but she has an entertaining mother.
Prospera leads a superb cast, and this production switches genders for three characters: Prospera, Francisca the bodyguard Lord (Yadira Correa) and Gonzala, the honest old Councillor.
A petite Lizan Mitchell is brilliant as Gonzala, frail but with the urgent voice of a preacher. It makes sense to have a woman in this role, as she secretly sent extra supplies and books when Prospera and Miranda were pushed out to sea.
Mother and daughter have been stranded for 12 years and live in a crumbling old theater. Alexander Dodge’s tall set with arches and vines mimics old buildings in the surrounding Balboa Park. Old theater seats on stage are similar to ours, so we are pulled tighter into the action. Humans and creatures are constantly moving, and they rotate in conversation on a moving floor.
When Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, washes ashore, he falls in love with Miranda, and Prospera is quick to make him promise not to violate Miranda’s chastity. Sam Avishay is the charming blonde boy next door (and a ringer for my neighbor Matt).
Philippe Bowgen as the nimble spirit Ariel is the servant every mother wants. A dancer, singer, climber, and gorgeous in a jeweled unitard, he brings needed comedy and physicality. While he must obey Prospera’s demands, he does so with sassy humor. Thankfully he’s also not hairy like Roddy McDowall in the old film.
Caliban, the deformed son of a witch, is an angry creature to avoid. His armored chastity belt is a red flag, yet Manoel Felciano is hard to resist when he curses, “may a southwest wind blow on ye and blister you all o’er.”
The laugh meter explodes when he conspires against Prospera with Stephano and Trinculo, the King’s drunken butler and jester. Robert Dorfman and Andrew Weems have drunken chemistry that comes from Vaudeville at its best.
A sound score mixes spooky and syncopated rhythms. Costumes by David Israel Reynoso are eye-popping weird in the realm of Star Trek. Goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno wear sequined gowns that could cause blindness. As they sing like a Motown girl group, we study their bizarre cagey headpieces.
Shakespeare’s plays resonate because directors aren’t afraid to mess with them. They mirror the times. The Tempest bubbles with ideas about women, romance, race, immigration, politics, and the supernatural.
In the end, Prospera forgives her foes and sets her slaves free. She resolves to bury her magic staff and drown her magic book, and she asks the audience to forgive her faults.
“As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.”
In the age of #MeToo and family separations, fantasy and reality blur. Whatever your politics or gender, it is exhilarating to applaud this Prospera and rewarding revival.