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In on a breeze, a certain sweetness

A simple retelling of `The Tempest' is playing at the idyllic Theatricum Botanicum.

June 22, 2007|Charlotte Stoudt | Special to The Times

Noir stylist Raymond Chandler famously advised writers that "when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand." For Shakespeare, the equivalent of a snub-nosed revolver was a shipwreck in Act I. There's no end of rough seas in Shakespearean plots, especially the late romances.

The most celebrated of these magical mystery tours, "The Tempest," is receiving a sweet, daffy production at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.

In some ways, the back story of "The Tempest" reflects the early history of this lovely outdoor theater. Actor-activist Will Geer, after being blacklisted in the 1950s, set up a performance space on his Topanga property as a means for other marginalized artists to practice their craft. In Shakespeare's play, Duke Prospero, also banished (following a coup by his brother), lives for years on an enchanted island with his daughter, Miranda, his books of magic and two slaves, the sprite Ariel (Melora Marshall) and the rage-filled, broken monster Caliban (Michael McFall). When a ship carrying his duplicitous brother sails close to the island, Prospero has the chance to seek his revenge. Cue El Nino.

This production, directed by Ellen Geer and Marshall, has a kind of hippie vehemence, as if Galt McDermott took a break from "Hair" to helm an episode of "Lost." The play is presented in daylight, on the theater's expansive, bare stage. And while it's always refreshing to see Shakespeare done without visual and conceptual clutter, the performances have a slightly overworked feel, as if otherwise capable actors are worried the text won't go over without interpretive amplification.

This is not a "Tempest" that yields any startling insights into the text.

Even featuring a woman in the leading role -- Ellen Geer alternates with William Dennis Hunt -- doesn't really shift our attention to less-explored aspects of the play. What Geer and Marshall offer is simply a retelling, a reminder that the best old stories were meant to be heard aloud, collectively.

And Shakespeare's odd masterpiece on the contradictions of possession works its charms, no matter how many times you may have seen it. Prospero's faithful Ariel longs for freedom, while Prince Ferdinand willingly submits to slavery in hopes of earning the hand of Miranda. Prospero commands the wind, the waves and the movements of all creatures who wander her domain.

Her power is absolute, yet empty; and she comes to realize, through Miranda's guileless fall into love, that the heart is the purest prize because it can never be coerced.

As Prospero, Geer has regal stature, but her vocal mannerisms, especially during the exposition at the top of the play, can make it difficult to follow her speeches. Mike Peebler makes an appealing, unaffected Ferdinand, and Willow Geer's Miranda melts convincingly at his adoring words. Designer Ian Flanders' soundscape of storms and animal cries gives the show's clean staging a shade of the otherworldly, as do the haunting chants by Mary Morales' chorus of nymphs.

Of course, the real star of this show is the Theatricum Botanicum, sheltered by the tall trees and steep hills of the canyon. "The air breathes upon us here most sweetly," marvels a shipwrecked sailor, and the audience can only agree. When Prospero muses that we are such stuff as dreams are made on, the breeze itself seems to pause and listen, and we are held, however briefly, in the bough of narrative, where endings can promise, as Ferdinand says, "quiet days, fair issue and long life."


`The Tempest'

Where: Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N.Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga

When: See for schedule

Ends: Sept. 30

Price: $8 to $25

Contact: (310) 455-3723

Running time: 2 hours

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