The Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of “The Tempest” had a rough opening Thursday night at Woodward Park.
This production wasn’t ready for an audience. Awkward pauses, lethargic pacing, forgotten lines and a turgid advance through what should be an airy, magical narrative marred the evening. The production had some strong points in terms of choreography and costume and sound design, but the most important aspect of any Shakespeare play — the text — was often problematic among an array of cast members. I fear that director Julie Ann Keller got too absorbed in the movement and design of the show and didn’t make sure her actors were well versed in the fundamentals.
The evening got off to vigorous start with the traditional storm sequence referred to in the title depicted with a blustery visual appeal, complete with swaying sails and a nice sense of tempestuous movement among the ensemble cast.
Keller is adept at using movement to convey both abstract and concrete narrative moments. (I particularly like a scene later in the show when the shipwrecked party is lulled to sleep.) In addition to the “Shapes” that Shakespeare mentions in the text — an ensemble that Keller deftly choreographs – she also puts the spotlight on two dancers who offer more focused, ballet-influenced moves. Keller’s sound design helps create an ethereal mood, and Celeste Saldivar’s costumes are an inspired contrast between shipwrecked finery and earthy garb.
But the text and narrative suffers. An early scene between Prospero (Richard Adamson), the central character, whose magical manipulations on the island upon which he has been stranded form the core of the play, and his daughter, Miranda (a strong Bridget Martin), was painful. Adamson blanked on his lines, and lingering silences ensued. I felt for him. Adamson was able to recover — and Martin was able to remain in character, trying to connect with him — but the damage was done. It was like dropping a few thousand feet in an airplane just after takeoff: You’re pleased when 1) you don’t crash and 2) things get better, but there’s still anxiety until you land.
If Adamson’s blanking out had been an isolated incident in terms of the text of the play, it could have been more easily dismissed, but there were issues throughout. Adamson later had other moments when his delivery lacked confidence. Others actors fell prey to that, too, with pauses and stumbles common.
At other times the issue isn’t so much a lack of confidence but overblown self-indulgence. (Two transgressors are Jim Gunn as Antonio, Prospero’s conniving brother, and Broderic Beard, as Ferdinand, both of whom should have been much more firmly directed.)
The play’s famed drunken characters, Trinculo (GJ Thelin) and Stephano (Robert Daniels) can get away with a lot more in terms of a loosy-goosy delivery — and the actors get some laughs — but their performances could be more controlled and focused. (And funnier.)
Joshua Taber is an impressive and dynamic Ariel, the airy spirit controlled by Prospero, and I liked his command of the text. Still, much of the nuance of “The Tempest” seems lost in this production, from Ariel’s aching wistfulness about his subjugation to the finely wrought magnanimity and forgiveness of Prospero that should brighten the ending with a valedictory glow.
I’ve seen “The Tempest” at least four times, including a wonderful production a couple of years ago at Fresno State. Because of the problems with the text and the shaping of the narrative in this production, I found it hard to track the storyline despite my familiarity. I think people unfamiliar with the play might be mystified.
The production continues through Sept. 20. I hope it gets better.
Pictured: Caliban (Abbygail Williams), Stephano (Robert Daniels), Ariel (Josh Taber), and Trincula (G.J. Thelin)