LA JOLLA — In this age of enlightenment, what's a playwright for? Convenience. He's there to provide a skeleton on which a director can display his wares. Do his own thing. Naturally, the deader the playwright, the better.
As "The Tempest" at the La Jolla Playhouse goes to some lengths (and widths and heights) to prove, who needs Shakespeare when we can have the nightmare visions of Robert Woodruff?
By all accounts, such as listening to the language of the text, it is Shakespeare's "The Tempest" that opened Sunday at La Jolla. Try as he might, Woodruff didn't fool us all of the time. Parts of Shakespeare's last and most lyrical play are actually spottable--here and there, now and then--no matter how hard the director has worked to dazzle and astonish us all.
That gigantic granary (designed by Douglas Stein, with a whole cow hanging from the rafters, tier upon tier of unidentified goods and sober words of wisdom inscribed on the walls) is the latest in island living: a pantry-cell-living space combo where Prospero, the wronged former Duke of Milan, and his strange daughter, Miranda, spend much of their time. And if Miranda (Deirdre O'Connell) seems a bit wild and unkempt (dressed as she is in dernier cri multiple layers of men's ragged long-handle underwear), remember she's grown up without benefit of finishing school.
Not to worry. Larry B. Scott's cartoonish Ferdinand doesn't mind. He's one cool dude, with an Eddie Murphy persona (only shorter), and he really digs that chick. Too bad they can't scare up a shred of real chemistry between them.
As for glamour, Regina Taylor's classy and delicious Ariel is there to supply it: glittering corn-rows down to the waist, a rackful of striking costumes (the fine designer is Susan Hilferty) and a subdued but beating heart. So much so, that Prospero is, well, smitten. That goes double for her. If this Prospero (Castulo Guerra in a robust, exciting performance) finds it hard to let his regal Ariel go, it's not about needing her messenger service.
That unconsummated but powerful relationship is Woodruff's best subliminal idea. (This "Tempest," for all its abuses, has a prodigious imagination.) Casting the fine Howie Seago (the hearing-impaired actor seen in the title role of last year's "Ajax") as the beleaguered Caliban enhances our sense of the character as victim rather than monster. Miranda or Ariel speak the lines he signs and it works. It's a compassionate view.
Less clear--and good for a very few laughs--is why Albert Farrar plays Trinculo as a screaming queen in high heels, skin-tight gold satin breeches, bare midriff, strapless top and gold-tipped pompadour. The joke wears as thin and as fast as Stephano's plastic apron.
Why Stephano (Michael Genovese) appears otherwise garbed in chef's hat and boxer shorts is equally symptomatic of what's wrong with much of the rest of this production: a dedicated arbitrariness that adds up to much less than the sum of its unmotivated parts.
What do we gain from an Iris, Ceres and Juno who, framed in green neon and warbling into microphones, look a lot like Cher, Shirley MacLaine and Peggy Lee? Is there a point to a pointless 60-second dog show, unconnected to anything, with terrified dogs slipping and sliding all over the stage?
There is some sense to the Mafioso touches that permeate Alonso's party, including the switch-blade knives and the neo-fascist uniform worn by Christopher McCann's Ollie North-ish Antonio. But why , when Miranda walks by him declaiming her famous "O brave new world / That has such people in't," does he haul off and strike her? And why does no one around them react ?
That's where imagination parts with reason. By that point in the play we've been subjected to increasing nonsense, including "spirits" garbed in wet-suits and grass skirts and a Miranda whose childlike wonder and atrocious taste in clothes have drifted into terminal silliness. She's merely besotted.
By the time the masterful Guerra delivers Prospero's sublime soliloquy about abjuring his magic and drowning his book, it seems to come out of left field, so immersed have we been in foolishness.
When the epilogue rolls around, it comes too late. We vainly try to reacquaint ourselves with poetry, having been thoroughly discouraged from remembering that it existed in this play. As with the San Diego Rep's jazz "Midsummer Night's Dream" (the good musical score here is by Paul Dresher), lyricism has once more been sacrificed on the altar of misconceived and misplaced auteurisme. It's been a rough summer for Shakespeare.
Performances are at Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts, Torrey Pines Road and La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through Sept. 26. Tickets: $18-$23; (619) 534-3960.