The characters in William Shakespeare's The Tempest sure sleep a lot, sometimes even against their wills and better judgments. Take crazy ol' Miranda. One word from her father Prospero and she's out like a torch, waking up only when pops gives the OK. Alonso, the king of Naples, dozes at his peril. In one scene, he's aroused just before a conspirator takes a knife to the right side of his throat.
Bloody close call there.
Sleep is used to good metaphorical effect in this play, which is loopy with references to dreams, enchantment, magic and otherworldliness. At its core, it's a fantastical look at Shakespearean themes of forgiveness and family ties. As performed by Poor Players Theatre Company, those themes are wrapped in the no-frills approach by which this troupe lived and died its first five years.
But bells and whistles give life to our dreams, after all, and that's why this entry could use a few. While this season opener is certainly a watchable interpretive piece, the Players' bare-bones philosophy has led it to bite off a little less than it can chew.
Prospero (Neil McDonald), for instance, wears only a cape as an indicator of his regal bearing. He's the rightful duke of Milan, and he and Miranda have been exiled to a remote island as Alonso (Tom Haine) and his brother Sebastian (Jude Evans) conspire to consolidate their political capital. Prospero will enlist the help of his captive spirit Ariel (a very good Jen Meyer) to shipwreck the bad guys at the same location; from there, we get lots of typically lean Shakespearean subtext and, finally, Prospero's mercy toward his persecutors.
Director Nick Kennedy's preference for austerity is understandable. Forgiveness is a big item within the human experience, and Kennedy sought to exploit it with minimal interference. But we're living in a different dimension here. Accordingly, the lessons would have come across lots better with some well-connected set pieces and props and sound designs. Fantasy just isn't that bereft of color and caprice.
Moreover, McDonald's overt vocal pauses and deliberate body language suggest more than Prospero's royal stature. They hint at a lengthy, intimate back-story on the character, something Shakespeare never intends with any of his people. Shakespearean theater is almost exclusively situational-you play only what's on the page and let the stories and characters speak for themselves. If Bill had wanted us to have Prospero's curriculum vitae, he'd have written it in.
Players co-founder Richard Baird would have sensed that, and then some-but he's 725 miles away. The phenomenal young actor scored a sweet gig last fall with Ashland, Ore.'s renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is working there through October.
In Baird's stead, Meyer carries a lot of this piece. Watch the little second-act scene in which Ariel insistently puts words in a jester's mouth. Meyer's cacophonous voice is a total hoot, and the scene helps illustrate her comprehension of her role. She quietly fuels an interesting chain of events in this show, which fundamentally works as an entry in the Poor Players mold. But the company needn't deny itself a few trinkets here and there, especially when those trinkets enlighten us about the people to whom they belong.
The show, which opened at Point Loma's Westminster Theatre, continues at downtown's New World Stage. The latter is psycho with potential as a first-class small venue. Let's hope the condo police don't get to it first.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Aug. 11. The Tempest runs through Aug. 27 at New World Stage, 917 Ninth Ave., Downtown. $15. 619-255-1401.
Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot comes complete with the author's suggestion on costumes-that the four major players sport bowlers, those funky top-hat hybrids designed in the late 19th century for the British mass market. La Jolla Playhouse's current all wear bowlers is a hybrid itself, drawing life from Godot's classic tramp duo and from the silent film era's commedia dell'arte look and feel.
Created and performed by Geoff Sobelle and former UCSD theater student Trey Lyford, bowlers involves two silent-film clowns suddenly thrust in front of a live audience. Along the way, it seeks to color Beckett's trademark absurdism through sound, shtick and sight gags. But as it lacks even a single nod to Sam's brilliant existentialist patter, the idea just doesn't work. For one thing, the dialogue is based on too many typical real-life exchanges (a ventriloquist and his dummy, the actors' physical encounters with the audience), elements that an authentic Beckett inspiration would distort into surrealism. And the silent-film trappings seem contrived-they fit too snugly around the situations, thus hindering our escape into the weirdness of it all.
There's some ingenious tech work here, notably when Sobelle and Lyford superimpose themselves inside a screen projection. But under Aleksandra Wolska's direction, the two tend to milk this and other bits, as if they're unsure of their next moves. Why didn't these guys just do Godot? There are six or seven worse plays out there.
All wear bowlers runs through Sept. 3 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. $28-$56. 858-550-1010.
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