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'The Tempest' is a Feast for the Senses at The Old Globe

The 2018 Summer Shakespeare Festival brings one of history’s most fantastic plays to life with lavish imagination


Kate Burton as Prospera, Manoel Felciano as Caliban, and Nora Carroll as Miranda in The Tempest at The Old Globe. | Photo: Jim Cox

You know you’re in for a treat before The Tempest even begins. Get to the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre early so you can take in all the lush details of Alexander Dodge’s scenic design, which seems to conjure the architecture of Balboa Park itself, hurricane-stricken, piled with old books, and scattered with hints of another theater in reflection. The overall effect is of multiple realities superpositioned, perfect for the tale of illusion and mischievous spirits to come.

Director Joe Dowling has made the no-longer-so-unusual but welcome decision to gender-swap three characters in a cast that, on the page, has just a single woman. Kate Burton is in full command as Prospera, shades more complex in her role as protector of her daughter’s innocence than the often flatly domineering traditional interpretation, yet she loses no frightful majesty as the sorcerer who “bedimmed the noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds, and twixt the green sea and the azure’d vault set roaring war.”

More unexpectedly thought-provoking is the casting of a female Gonzala (Lizan Mitchell). Though hers is a relatively small role, her standout moment, an awed vision of the new society she could create on the island, unconstrained by the old world’s hierarchies and heirs, where “riches, poverty, and use of service” should not be known, can’t help but take on contemporary significance once dashed against immediate mocking disregard from the men.

The drunken clowns Stephano and Trinculo (Robert Dorfman and Andrew Weems) deserve special mention, too, for disappearing most thoroughly into their roles. It’s no small feat to earn such big, consistent laughs out of Early Modern English, and they just about steal the show.

The highlight of the experience by far is the beautiful costume design by David Israel Reynoso, who may have singlehandedly depleted San Diego’s supply of sequins. Ariel (Philippe Bowgen) is wind and water personified, lithe and spritely; Caliban (Manoel Felciano) lurches and genuflects like a drowned Gollum; the three goddesses Prospera conjures for her daughter’s wedding are shimmering crystalline mirages—and that’s just a few of the otherworldly creatures the island has in store.

My nitpicks are few. In 2018 America I could have done without having realistic-looking guns pointed into the audience, however briefly. The significance of the island’s unique unreality is diminished somewhat if the outsiders’ wardrobe also mismatches time periods. (I.e., Why is the prince wearing sneakers and a tank top while his father’s in 1940s black tie?) Music director Keith Thomas sets verse to song to great effect and weaves musical interludes naturally throughout, but unless we’re going full Baz Luhrmann, I don’t see what dropping 20th-century lyrics into just one scene adds more than it distracts.

For the most part, this Tempest is a linguistic and sensorial feast, with enough wild imagination and finely executed dialogue to delight Shakespearean novices and scholars alike. Bring the kids—if they’re sharp enough to keep up, it’ll be an evening they’ll never forget.

Through July 22
Tickets at theoldglobe.org

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