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A 'Tempest' that's too young at heart

The cast is up for the athletic demands, but playing multiple roles works against East West Players production.

November 22, 2002|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

The seven actors in Andrew Tsao's staging of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" for East West Players are onstage as the audience enters, stretching and warming up, wearing simple modern outfits that are suitable for a physical workout.

And a workout this cast gets. This is a very gymnastic "Tempest." Not only do the actors tumble and climb ropes and rapidly hoist themselves between two levels throughout the production, but six of the seven play at least two roles. So there aren't many opportunities to take a backstage breather, especially because there is no intermission in Tsao's spare, 95-minute version of the text.

All that athleticism makes for some vigorous choreography, credited to Nick Erickson. But it also apparently required a youthful cast, and this is a problem. There should be a clear delineation between the generations in the human characters of "The Tempest."

Prospero (Daniel Dae Kim) has been restlessly trapped on his island for years, while his contemporaries have usurped his place on the mainland. The younger generation -- Prospero's daughter, Miranda, and her newfound lover, Ferdinand -- should be a breath of fresh air as they encounter the "brave new world."

Yet here all look as if they're about the same age, give or take five or six years. Kim and the other actors playing the older roles speak their lines well enough, but their delivery doesn't carry the weight of their experience.

Of course the fact that the cast is introduced to us as actors who are warming up, not as their characters, signals that we shouldn't take this production too literally. It's all make-believe -- which also helps justify the fact that nearly everyone has more than one role.

Fair enough. But if a company wants to do small-cast, stripped-down Shakespeare, "The Tempest" isn't one of the better choices. It's set entirely outdoors, on an enchanted island. It cries out for big production values and effects.

Here, Rand Ryan's lighting and Nathan Wang's sound design and score work overtime to create some of those effects, but Victoria Petrovich's set and Steven N. Lee's costumes remain fairly rudimentary in terms of creating enchantment, serving primarily to facilitate the actors' gymnastics.

Five years ago, Tsao staged an alfresco "Tempest," for Shakespeare Festival/LA, at the Watercourt in downtown L.A. But the location didn't work out. The site's fountains weren't used, distracting noise filtered in from other sources, and the design of the production oddly suggested an indoor theater in the days of vaudeville rather than the great outdoors.

Tsao probably didn't want to repeat himself, but that vaudevillian imagery would have fit much better inside East West's theater. Or, alternatively, this production could have emphasized island imagery in keeping with the Pacific Islands part of East West's Asian-Pacific-American mission. As it is, specific Asian-Pacific references are readily apparent only in one costume (Gonzalo's), in the use of a Chinese zither in Wang's score, and in a few images of swirling fabric.

Matthew Yang King does the most chameleonic double duty as he switches between the character who is the play's homeliest, Caliban, and the character who is the play's handsome young stud, Ferdinand. The transformations of his female counterpart, Gwendoline Yeo, between the roles of Miranda and Ariel are a little more subtle. Yeo also takes on a third role as the player of that Chinese zither that's off to one side of the stage.

Trieu Tran and the distinctively limber Ogie Zulueta have fun with the lowlifes Stephano and Trinculo, but they look more callow than anyone else on stage when they play the older generation's Sebastian and Antonio.

*

'The Tempest'

Where: David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles

When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Dark this Saturday afternoon and Thanksgiving Day

Ends: Dec. 15

Price: $25-$30

Contact: (213) 625-7000

Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Daniel Dae Kim...Prospero

Matthew Yang King...Caliban, Ferdinand

Gwendoline Yeo...Ariel, Miranda

Trieu Tran...Sebastian, Stephano

Ogie Zulueta...Antonio, Trinculo

Esther K. Chae...Gonzalo, Spirit

Kipp Shiotani...Alonso, Spirit

By William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by Andrew Tsao. Choreographed by Nick Erickson. Set by Victoria Petrovich. Costumes by Steven N. Lee. Lighting by Rand Ryan. Sound and music by Nathan Wang. Stage manager Victoria A. Gathe.

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