Everything but the Talking Poo

Who would have predicted that William Shakespeare would one day receive a production in Orange County that recalls South Park and Marvel Comics without compromising the playwright's poetry and intellectual brilliance?

No one, and yet here it is: South Park's Mr. Garrison (and his Mr. Hat) standing in for a neurotic court jester who talks to a small stick puppet, and an amalgamation of the Incredible Hulk and the Silver Surfer playing the brutal, poetic Caliban.

They're two of the crazier connections drawn from Shakespeare Orange County's racy, visually evocative and very entertaining production of The Tempest.And what's most impressive about this Thomas F. Bradac-directed production is that any contemporary references you walk away with aren't really there. You've drawn them yourself. This isn't conceptualized or tweaked or satirized Shakespeare. It's produced as Shakespeare wrote it—as a fascinating collage of image, effect and poetry, the kind of stuff the best theatrical dreams are made of.

The fact that a traditional staging of The Tempest seems so contemporary is one more piece of evidence that Shakespeare was, you'll pardon me, a truly kick-ass writer.

The Tempestwas Shakespeare's last play—and his trippiest. A white magician by the name of Prospero, exiled to a desert island years ago with his infant daughter, Miranda, orchestrates the apparent sinking of a ship carrying his scoundrel brother. Helped by his fairy spirit Ariel, Prospero sets out to teach his brother (and his brother's cohorts) one huge lesson in humility, while at the same time setting up his daughter and his brother's son in an attempt to re-cord any familial discord.

Along the way, there are monsters, phantoms and phantasms, 15-foot puppets, drunken butlers, out-of-control jesters, dreams and fancies, head games, parlor tricks, and stunning illusions.

It's one of Shakespeare's most fascinating plays. Much has been made of Prospero breaking his magic staff and drowning his magic book at play's end as a metaphor for Shakespeare retiring from playwrighting. The character of Caliban is also one of the most intriguing in Shakespeare's voluminous canon. The only native of the island, Caliban is enslaved by Prospero, an exiled Italian who washes up on Caliban's island. He's brutalized and called a half-beast and repeatedly tormented by everyone. Yet Caliban's language is the most profound poetry in a play of great poetic profundity. When alone, Caliban speaks in beautiful verse. When in the company of the stranded Europeans, he speaks in pedestrian prose. Many commentators have suggested Caliban's treatment is a prescient look at the dehumanizing effects that European colonialism would have on indigenous peoples across the world.

But in this production, Caliban isn't Oppressed Native as much as Fascinating Creature. Michael Nehring, decked in green body paint and with a shaved head, delivers a stunning performance, wiring both Caliban's base nature (a big reason he's Prospero's slave is because he once tried to rape Miranda) and his softer, poetic nature. So, for every crotch grab, vulgarity and rage, we're constantly reminded that Caliban is also weary and heartbroken and just wants his home back.

Another standout is Terra Shelman's Ariel. As Prospero's unseen fairy agent, Ariel must be sprightly, manipulative, angry and cute. Shelman is all these things, hurling her body and spirit into the role in a fearless performance.

In the title role of Prospero, Daniel Bryan Cartmell is certainly commanding and manipulative, keeping his true, honorable intentions to himself. But I'm not convinced anyone can raise Prospero above his core nature: he's a dick. He keeps slaves; he lies; he's prone to rages and melancholy whines. He's an unlikable man, and this performance does nothing to make me like him anymore.

That doesn't mean, however, that this production isn't likable. It's colorful, energetic, creative and one of the funniest Tempests you can possibly imagine. If Bradac could have figured out a way to include a talking piece of fecal matter into his frenetic mix, well, that would have deserved to be called nothing short of brilliant.

THE TEMPEST AT Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, 301 E. Palm, Orange, (714) 744-7016. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Through Aug. 12. $24.

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