LONG BEACH — The three Ariels, wearing black tights sprinkled with glitter, flitted onstage amid the sleeping sailors, looking every bit the magical spirits they were purported to be.
"If of life you keep a care, shake off slumber and beware," hissed one, played by Diana Kenlow.
In quick succession the other two repeated versions of the warning.
Krok loeng, krok loeng, " said Chantara Nop.
Echoed Karen Taliha: "Despierte. "
As far as anyone in the cast knows, it was the first time "The Tempest," or any other play by William Shakespeare for that matter, had ever been offered in three languages. "In the beginning it was real difficult," said Kenlow, 23, a bank teller performing Shakespeare for the first time. "It was hard listening for cues in Cambodian and Spanish," neither of which she understands.
But practice made things click. And now, said Kenlow, "We're learning a lot about each other; this is an introduction to cultures and ways."
Which is precisely the point, according to Cynthia Galles, co-director of the trilingual production and artistic director of The Found Theater which will be presenting it almost every weekend through Aug. 2.
The production reflects the changing demographics of Long Beach, a city whose more than 390,000 residents are estimated to be about 15% Spanish-speaking and about 8% Cambodian.
"This is their community too," said co-director Judith Luther, speaking of the two ethnic groups whose attendance at the production was solicited by flyers in their own languages distributed in their own neighborhoods. "They deserve to be part of everything that goes on here. These doors have to be opened."
The play--said to be the last written by Shakespeare--tells the story of Prospero, the scholarly former Duke of Milan wrongfully exiled to a remote island. Through his own magical powers Prospero causes his enemies to be shipwrecked on the island where he and the spirit, Ariel, wreak havoc on the souls of the unsuspecting mariners.
In staging the production, Luther and Galles divided the role of Ariel--traditionally played by one actor--into three parts, each performed in one of the major languages spoken in Long Beach.
Though not a native-language speaker, Taliha, a 37-year-old accountant and aspiring actress from San Pedro, learned Spanish by traveling and living in Mexico. And Nop, 32, a counselor for the United Cambodian Community who left his native country five years ago and appeared as an extra in the film "The Killing Fields," did his own translation of Shakespeare into Cambodian.
"We don't understand what he's saying," Luther joked. "He could be making up lines."
While some of the lines are repeated in all three languages, she said, others are divided among the three Ariels. All other parts in the play, she said, are performed in their original English.
The differences in language and culture created some problems during rehearsals, according of Western music, for instance, Nop had great difficulty learning to do a little jig to an English ditty featured in one of the scenes. Instead of dancing, he pretends to play a flute.
By last weekend's opening, however, most of the major kinks seemed to have been worked out.
"I'm very impressed," said Than Pok, executive director of the United Cambodian Community, who was in the audience the first night. "Cambodians are kind of isolated. This is a chance for them to become involved."
Though most of his former countrymen have never seen Shakespeare, Pok said, they can relate to a work like "The Tempest" because of the "desperate, helpless" situation the characters find themselves in, which to some extent mirrors the experience of Cambodian refugees, and because of the role of magical spirits such as Ariel.
"This kind of spirit the Cambodians really love," Pok said.
Others present had varying reactions to the drama.
Nella Kirkbridge, a native-Spanish-speaker from South America, said she found the interplay of the three languages enjoyable. "Ghosts come in every language and color," she said. "It made it more original."
And Michael Job, a rental sales manager from Long Beach whose first language is English, said that while he found the presence of Spanish and Cambodian "just a little bit distracting" he liked the overall play because it was "very very different."
'Positive and Enriching'
Company members say they are encouraged by such responses. "People tend to have negative reactions to hearing someone speak another language," Galles said, "but the differences between us are not negative. They are positive and enriching."
Creating human harmony, in fact, was one of the purposes for which The Found Theater was founded in 1974 by Galles and a group of then-recent graduates of the University of California, Irvine. Its other goals: to make live drama accessible to those who through lack of money or cultural appreciation would not normally see it, and to eliminate racial, sexual and ethnic barriers through the cohesive force of art.