There’s magic, onstage and off, in the new California Shakespeare Theater production of “The Tempest.”
Shakespeare’s late-life romance takes place on an enchanted island, and it feels right at home in the Orinda theater’s beautiful outdoor setting.
On opening night, the shipwreck that sets the play in motion was accompanied by chilly winds and a waxing moon. Throughout the play, chirping birds and mooing cows contributed to the island sounds. The surrounding hills give the production, which opens Cal Shakes’ 2012 season, a glorious golden backdrop.
Directed by company artistic director Jonathan Moscone, the production doesn’t overcome all the challenges of this masterpiece about love and betrayal, exile and redemption. But it conjures an enveloping atmosphere of enchantment.
Moscone employs music, dance and creative casting to tell the story of Prospero (Michael Winters), the exiled Duke of Milan, who lives on the island with his daughter, Miranda (Emily Kitchens.) A storm brought them there 12 years earlier, and, as the play begins, another storm brings ashore the brother who stole Prospero’s crown.
Ariel (Erika Chong Shuch as Prospero’s airy sprite) has deposited the newcomers all over the island, and Emily Greene’s sprawling set of trunks, nets, books and ship parts gives them multiple playing spaces. Gabe Maxson’s dramatic lighting and Cliff Caruthers’ eerie sound designs add weight and dimension.
Chong Shuch, who also serves as choreographer, buoys the production with nimble dance interludes. Moscone adds witty, beguiling touches — a dance-hall number for the clowns Stephano and Trinculo; an actor singing “Stardust” for the young lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand.
Six actors, clad in Anna Oliver’s shape-shifting costumes, play all the parts. With doubling even in principal roles, results vary. Winters, an oddly recessive Prospero, is a disappointment, but he shines as the dim-bulb Stephano. Nicholas Pelczar excels as Ferdinand and Stephano’s pal, Trinculo.
Chong Shuch’s agile Ariel is a delight. Kitchens is a fresh Miranda and a one-dimensional Sebastian. Catherine Castellanos misses a measure of Caliban’s menace and pathos, but makes a glowering Antonio.
James Carpenter sounds the depths of Alonso’s grief. Melanie Elms, Aaron Moreland and Travis Santell Rowland move silently as black-clad sprites.
Moscone’s production is strongest in the scenes of broad humor. Aside from a few moving exchanges between Chong Shuch’s Ariel and Winters’ Prospero, the director often skims the landscape of the play rather than delving into it. But the magic still comes through.
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes June 24
Tickets: $35 to $71
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org