Free Shakespeare in the park is a construct to be cherished. Companies like the Independent Shakespeare Company, who performs in Griffith Park throughout the summers, expose Shakespeare to those not usually concerned with classical theater, broadening culture to the masses. The second production of their summer '16 season, The Tempest, is filled with clowns, spirits, kings, and damsels in love. A talented cast keeps the audience engaged with timely jokes and audience interaction.
Prospero (Thom Rivera) was once Duke of Milan until his evil brother Antonio (Faqir Hassan) deposed him and shipped him and his daughter Miranda (Erika Soto) into hostile waters. Now, Prospero rules an island with enchanted powers and has his monstrous slave Caliban (Sean Pritchett) and Caliban's wicked sprite Ariel (Kalean Ung) to do his bidding. Prospero avenges his wrongs by summoning a storm that capsizes the ship carrying Antonio and the others responsible for his exile, causing them to believe they are shipwrecked and stranded.
The Tempest has some thought-provoking speeches and funny moments. It twists the convention by introducing a monster, Caliban, son of a powerful witch, one who by default should be the villain, but shrewdly, Shakespeare matches him with the two clowns, Stephano and Trinculo, turning him into comic relief. Plot-wise, The Tempest feels like warmed-over Midsummer Night's Dream, with tricksters and commanding rulers who conjure spells to create complications. But all the machinations in the final act lead to a lot of "much ado about nothing," since all Prospero does is whine to his villains of their misdeeds, then forgive them and move on. By being neither a tragedy with a slew of dead bodies nor a comedy with hijinks ensuing, the climax loses direction.
Director Matthew Earnest allows a relaxed rendition of the play. The cast runs through the audience, toying with them, before climbing on the stage. They break character by referencing modern subjects such as Martha Stewart and Pokémon Go, and instead of ignoring the elements that occur at an outdoor theater, they point out unexpected interruptions like a helicopter spotlight that chased an unknown menace in the woods near the amphitheater. The kids in the audience delight in these asides.
Earnest presents the opening rainstorm aptly with cast members darting by with such precariousness, one would swear the theater was rocking ferociously back and forth. He also infuses the production with Weimer influences including spirits with black bee-stung lips and thick circles under their eyes and songs played with trombone and accordion instruments that sound like Kurt Weill compositions.
While Rivera has a strong command of the Shakespearean language and the appropriate heft, his Prospero is almost too cruel toward Ariel and Caliban, making him seem tyrannical. It's difficult for the audience to empathize with his situation. Ung plays Ariel with a sexy naughty streak, particularly when she pops onto Prospero's standing lap as if performing a Kama Sutra position. Soto finds the sauciness in Miranda's lines as she discovers her first man (then second, third, and fourth). She turns the virginal Miranda into a mid-millennial Ado Annie. Of the clowns, David Melville is hilarious as the inebriated and stuffy Stephano, reminding us of Alec Guinness in the '50s Ealing comedies.
In his day, Shakespeare was the people's playwright. Queens and paupers alike would watch his latest renditions. By taking out the formality of the language and the location in this production, Shakespeare has returned to earth to bedazzle everyone, especially children, allowing them to discover that theater really is "such stuff as dreams are made on."