Review: Kingsmen Shakespeare Company’s The Tempest

A short drive up the 101 to Thousand Oaks, and located on the campus of Cal Lutheran University, you’ll find the summer home of Kingsmen Shakespeare Company. For 17 years the professional theatre group has been presenting Shakespeare’s classic plays outdoors in a lovely corner of the grounds, bordered by grand old trees and a creek that runs behind the stage.

Affordable ticket prices, easy parking adjacent to Kingsmen Park, and the promise of a magical night under the stars brings loyal audience members back year after year and entices first-timers to join in the fun. I was one of the first-timers this past week, as the Kingsmen opened their season with Shakespeare’s redemptive comedy, The Tempest.

In it, the exiled Duke Prospero (Harold Dixon) uses his magical powers to create a storm that will bring those who wronged him many years earlier to his island in order to make things right. It is a play full of the supernatural and one that stands apart from Shakespeare’s other works in its very theatrical nature. Instead of pleasing the audience with intricate plot developments or complicated historical chronicles, it gives over to a world of magic and visual pageantry that director Michael J. Arndt expresses in some imaginative ways. 

One of the most memorable is his interpretation of the spirit Ariel (Andy Babinski), whom he has realized not as a single actor, but as a composite group of Arielites who physicalize Prospero’s spells and add an energetic levity to the action. They conjure the storm that opens the play and then recreate it for Prospero as Ariel tells the story of the ship’s destruction. Later they present a beautifully choreographed masque that combines the elegance of the Elizabethans with a slightly more modern Vegas showgirl sensibility. Choreographer Jeff Wallach’s dance staging is terrific throughout.

A lush, orchestral score by composer Christopher Hoag employs a wide range of elements, from an ethereal operatic soprano in the play’s opening to a rich, full melodic accompaniment that underscores the drama and emphasizes the sweeping theatricality of the play.

Leigh Allen’s lighting design plays up the beauty of the park’s natural surroundings. She bounces colored lights up into the trees creating an otherworldy glow that is quite lovely and creates dramatic effects on Joel Daavid’s manmade caves and wafting tissue-like panels. Howard Schmitt’s costumes reflect the whimsy and practicality of The Tempest’s contrasting worlds. Caliban (Napoleon Tavale) is as earthy and rough-hewn as Ariel and the spirits are graceful and changeable. Prospero’s clothes are especially well-suited to a man who has seen the passage of time and still appears timeless.

Dixon’s Prospero is a more genial duke than I’ve seen before, possessing a world-weary quality that is especially appropriate for this character. As The Tempest is commonly thought to be Shakespeare’s last complete play, it in many ways seems to express the wistful words of a playwright nearing the end of his career, looking back on his life and speculating on its worth. Dixon delivers one of Prospero’s most famous speeches with a bittersweet consciousness that never fails to land.

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air…
…And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep…”

Perhaps the most fulfilling moment occurs when Prospero releases Ariel and his counterparts from his servitude near the end of the play. Arndt’s staging of the simple yet all-encompassing gesture is truly moving and had me blinking back tears.

A solid group of seasoned actors makes up the cast including Ted Barton, Jason Rennie, Michael Faulkner, Robert Nairo, Marc Silver and John Slade, though they often seem like filler between the more entertaining theatrical elements of the play. It is hard to compete with the music, the dancing, the magic, Prospero’s outbursts or Miranda (Jasmine Sim) and Ferdinand’s (Miles Villanueva) love story. Sim and Villanueva’s first meeting embodies the delight and humor of love at first sight and the sudden rush of feelings that comes with it. Their later pledge of love is full of sweetness.

This Kingsmen first-timer found The Tempest to be a thoroughly enchanting experience. There’s plenty of spectacle to keep you engaged and more than enough magic to spare, so if you’ve never ventured up north to see Shakespeare outdoors, under the stars, this is the summer to make it happen. Take your family and friends, a blanket and a picnic, and don’t be surprised if you too are bewitched by its many charms.

THE TEMPEST
Through July 14, 2013
Kingsmen Shakespeare Company
General admission: $20 for adults; Free for those under 18. Premium box seats are $90 and side box seats are $75. For information or advance lawn box reservations, call 805-493-3014 or visit www.kingsmenshakespeare.org. Individual tickets are available only at the door.

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