'California: The Tempest': Theater Review

California The Tempest Production Still - H 2015
Kevin Michael Campbell

California The Tempest Production Still - H 2015

 Alison Carey's deftly written but erratic adaptation celebrates the everyday people of California

A California-centric adaptation of what is believed to be Shakespeare's final play tours working-class Los Angeles communities.

Ever the populist, William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in 1611 with a keen understanding of what was trending in Jacobean England. The recently established Jamestown settlement prompted outlandish tales from those who had visited North America, and even more outlandish tales from those who hadn’t. Perhaps his most experimental and cinematic play, The Tempest offers revenge, revolution and rough magic, which in the case of Cornerstone Theatre’s new adaptation, might be a little too rough for purists but just the ticket for lovers of community theater.

Ambitious in scope, playwright Alison Carey’s adaptation is a windy and sometimes baffling meditation on the varied people, problems and cultures of the Golden State. The production recently blew into the working-class town of Pacoima and set up camp in a local high school auditorium as part of its ten-city statewide tour. Stops include mainly agricultural communities with names like Arvin, Lamont and Weedpatch, as well as major markets like San Francisco and Los Angeles where the tour ends in June. Along the way, the cast takes on new members from the community, many of whom have never acted before.

In the opening scene, an airplane is buffeted by a storm conjured by deposed California Governor Prosper (Bahni Turpin), whose seat has been usurped by her sister Antonia (E’Vet Thompson), a passenger on the plane. Lightning bolts lash at a toy flying overheard while at center stage we see inside the cabin as passengers shake in terror.

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The sequence is effectively staged by director Michael John Garces on scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadis’ practical set, which is fronted with an access ramp, stairs at stage left and right, and tiered upstage where white muslin makes an ideal screen for projecting scenic shadows. Turpin embodies a forceful but compassionate Prosper, firmly anchoring the first half of the show as she navigates through voluminous dialogue. Commanding our respect with her power and wisdom, she warms our hearts with her tenderness for daughter Minerva (Karen Covarrubias) — all while reducing California to a tiny island in a stormy sea.

While the cockpit prepares for the worst you might notice an impish flight attendant with a tattooed hairline. She’s not there to serve the passengers, she serves Prosper. Ariel, played with physical grace and prudent understatement by Chelsea Gregory, is the closest California: The Tempest comes to magic.

The plane crash lands on the tiny island of California where survivors are split into two groups including Antonia and her assistant, Sebastia (Iris Gonzalez), who have murder on their mind, as well as Trinculo (Gabriel Garcia), Adrian (Francisco Martinez), Oliver (Joji Koyuri) and Stephano (Marcenus Earl). Pretty soon they are joined by Prosper’s rebellious servant, Caliban, played by Cornerstone co-founder, Peter Howard who delivers a ranting, manic portrayal that puts the scenery at the top of the menu. Otherwise, the principal cast members are strong, carrying less experienced performers and anchoring key scenes.

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There's clever wordplay throughout Carey’s adaptation, as well as poetic passages that blend smoothly with the original text. But other passages are less successful. While Shakespeare’s speech for Gonzalo hints at a sort of proto-Communism, there is hardly the level of political grandstanding presented in Carey’s work, including numerous references to hot-button issues like fracking, immigration and the wealth gap — “Democracy is a prison with no keys!” “The one percent is everything today, the king, the governor, God!” Prisoners like Caliban are “victims of a corrupt system, petty thieves with bad lawyers that keep the system afloat.” Political affiliations aside, these passages come off as simplistic sloganeering.

Cornerstone’s mission statement is to build bridges “between and within diverse communities” by “making theater with and for people of many ages, cultures and levels of theatrical experience.” At the very least, theater has the power to divert people from their everyday life for a couple of hours. At its best, it can change hearts and change the world. By bringing theater to towns that wouldn’t otherwise experience Shakespeare, Cornerstone touches hundreds of lives in a positive way. And while California: The Tempest has its ups and downs, the company's mission is commendable.

Cast: Bahni Turpin, Chelsea Gregory, Peter Howard, Marcenus Earl, Karen Covarrubias, Elzie Alexander, Brent Grihalva, E’Vet Thompson, Iris Gonzalez, Gema L. Sanchez, Gabriel Garcia, Francisco Martinez, Joji Koyuri

Director: Michael John Garces

Playwright: Alison Carey and William Shakespeare

Music: Becky Dale

Set designer: Nephelie Andonyadis

Costume designer: Garry Lennon

Lighting designer: Geoff Korf

Presented by Margaret Leong Checca, Jon Neustadter, Jennifer & Matthew Rowland