The Tempest is Lost (as in the TV show) in Shakespeare Orange County's Latest

What a big, thick staff you have, Prospero!

The Tempest is Lost
And other secrets revealed in Shakespeare OC's latest

Passengers survive a mid-journey disaster, crash-landing on an uncharted island where a bloody struggle for power between native inhabitants and previous refugees has taken place. The island is rife with conspiracies, unseen voices and unexplainable phenomena. Manipulation comes with the morning palm frond.

If it sounds like Lost, you're right. But it's also William Shakespeare's 1610 play The Tempest. And while no one in their right mind would ever accuse them of cribbing from a periphrastic hack like Shakespeare, that TV show's creators wouldn't be the first.

The Tempest was Shakespeare's final play, and Shakespeare Orange County's current production shows it could also be his funniest. And the genius of this production is that it works without amping the comedy up through some goofy conceptualization or extraneous bits.

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That's due to director Thomas F. Bradac, the big kahuna at Shakespeare OC. Few theater types know as much about Shakespeare and the theater of his time as Bradac, who has long avoided the high and low concepts so many directors grasp onto as a way to make Shakespeare more relevant to contemporary audiences.

Rather than some drama-school stab at setting The Tempest in post-Katrina New Orleans, or illustrating Shakespeare's prescience by turning the half-brute Caliban (the island native turned slave) into a symbol of the larvae that would ultimately transform into the worm gnawing at the heart of Western expansion, Bradac opts for a streamlined, mostly straightforward staging. Actors speak directly to the audience, rather than stumbling about in self-analysis. The words are more important than costumes, sets or symbols, resulting in a show that's as funny as iambic pentameter can be.

Michael Nehring's Prospero, while capable of exploding into bellowing rage and reveling in vengeful thoughts, is also filled with sardonic insights and comic asides. And several other actors—most notably Alyssa Bradac as a boozing butler and Joshua Snyder as her fawning sidekick—showcase great comic timing and presence.

The emphasis on laughs doesn't fully amplify the darker hues of Prospero's personality, which make him such a compelling character. He's a control freak capable of monstrous cruelty, and any magician who surrounds himself with a gaggle of scantily clad nymphs and sports an obvious boner for his male fairy comes off way more Aleister Crowley than Gandalf the Grey.

But that's easily overlooked. Not so the character of Ariel, the instrument of Prospero's sorcery. Edgar Landa's Ariel is hardly the most effervescent of magical pixies, but rather brooding and downright depressive. Landa has obvious acting chops (anyone capable of pulling off an Ariel more Trent Reznor than Tinkerbell is doing something interesting), but too often his Ariel is a grumpy stick-in-the-sand. He's unlikable most of the time, a hard sell for a character whose very name conveys lighter-than-air enchantment.

Even with that curious quirk, this remains a serious production of a very funny play. It shows that although Shakespeare may deserve his canonization as the greatest wordsmith of the English language, as a working playwright who relied on his craft to put mutton in his belly, he was really just another Elizabethan song-and-dance man with one job: to entertain.

The Tempest at the Festival Amphitheatre, 12740 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 744-7016; Thurs.-Sat., 8:15 p.m. Through Aug. 23. $30-$32.

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