Free Willy

Aside from maybe AMidsummerNight'sDream,there's not a play more conducive to a Shakespeare-in-the-park type setting than his final romance, TheTempest.The drama itself takes place entirely outdoors, beginning with a heaving storm that wrecks a ship and then moving on to a sunny island where the wreck's survivors come under the spell of the mad/wise impresario Prospero. The tone, despite deft grace notes touching on depths of somberness common to Shakespeare's late tragedies, is predominantly airy, sweet and funny, as don'tchu-worry-'bout-a-ting as Bob Marley riffing with a spliff in his teeth. I didn't catch a whiff of any ganja on the evening I saw the show on the grassy expanse beside the entrance of the Long Beach Aquarium—probably 30 years too late for that—but the mood among the crowd of picnickers who'd spread out their blankets and lawn chairs in front of the flower-bedecked stage was as festive as even Prospero might hope. Didn't hurt anybody's mood to know the performance was free, put on by the generous folks of the Long Beach Shakespeare Festival, now in its seventh year.

TheTempestis, as everybody knows, Shakespeare's final bow to the theater, his last completed play before he apparently left London to return to a strangely bourgeois life back in Stratford, the last of the late romances in which he blithely tosses away, like a silk scarf into a high wind, the nearly unbearable tragic vision, the still-unmatched psychological intensity of plays like Hamlet,Macbethand KingLear.In TheTempest,everything feels preordained, so there's no real suspense, and the characters are relatively flat, so there's little development. What there is, in spades, is magic:and not just the magic of Prospero's staff and garment, which allow him to drum up storms, call up sprites, control vicious man-beasts with threats of pain, make delicious repasts appear and disappear, or conjure up a perfect love for his daughter. It's the magic of the theater that Shakespeare is really after here, his sense that the stage, precisely because it's as artificial as it is, evokes the “insubstantial pageant” of life better than anything else, that it's the place where we can best learn that “we are such stuff/As dreams are made on.”

And it's a great dream Shakespeare dreams up, filled with generous humor and forgiveness, and probably as satisfying a vision of ultimate harmony as we've got. Wallace Stevens once wrote of an art that would, “like an insatiable actor, slowly and/With meditation, speak words that in the ear,/In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat/Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound/Or which, an invisible audience listens,/Not to the play, but to itself, expressed/In an emotion as of two people, of two/Emotions becoming one.” When TheTempestworks, Shakespeare speaks exactly what we want to hear, what we need to hear, and we follow the unfolding vision, step by step, like initiates following angels to the gates of heaven.

Working with a whimsical two-tiered set painted an almost phosphorescent green, a miked stage whose amplifications don't always carry over the circumambient urban noises—ambulance sirens, mufflerless motorcycles, Aquarium loudspeaker announcements—and a budget that limits special effects to, well, no special effects, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company is up against it, and more or less cheerfully raves on: Ariel throws magic dust, Ferdinand and Miranda make eyes at each other, Caliban snorts and curses amiably, and—most effectively the night I saw it—Sebastian and Antonio scheme (with utter futility) to advance to power. Joel Rieck can't give Prospero the necessary mystery and uncanniness the role requires—with his humorless voice and outstretched staff, there's a little too much Charlton-Heston-doing-Moses to the role—so the performance doesn't speak to the delicatest ear of the mind, but the assembled picnickers who attended the night I saw it seemed to enjoy the attempt. My suggestion: barring the ganja, bring plenty of wine to help the thing along.

The Tempest, Long Beach Shakespeare Company at Aquarium of the Pacific, 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach, (562) 997-1494. Sat.-Sun., 6:30 p.m. Through July 17. Free.

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