William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” famously deals in spectacle, magic, revenge and forgiveness. The popular play also raises the specters of absolute power and forced servitude. There’s a lot to parse in the compact late entry to the canon, often seen as Shakespeare’s retirement speech. The new production on the Sacramento Theatre Company Main Stage seems to know where many of the play’s marks are, even though it can’t reach many of them.
Mostly the production feels flavorless and freshly scrubbed. Set on an enchanted island untethered from our own weighted reality, the play’s aura of magical, otherworldly possibilities rarely manifests itself.
The sorcerer Prospero (Matt K. Miller), formerly the Duke of Milan, rules the island, living there with his daughter, Miranda (Monique Ward Lonergan in the performance I saw). Twelve years previous Prospero’s power-hungry brother, Antonio, usurped the title and position. Prospero and his daughter were set adrift in a boat with only a box of his beloved books from which he learned his magic.
They landed on the island previously ruled by the witch Sycorax. Prospero has cast spells that bind the island’s inhabitants to him. Ariel (Emily Serdahl), previously imprisoned by Sycorax, does Prospero’s magical bidding, while the witch’s monstrous son, Caliban (Atim Udoffia), resentfully provides the physical labor. Both are slaves to Prospero, desperately desiring their freedom. This conflicted menage produces the play’s most complex relationships.
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Aaron Galligan-Stierle in his first professional outing as a director launches a mild mini-storm for the play’s opening shipwreck, but the production flattens out visually from there. The passengers on the ship, King Alonso of Naples (who allowed Prospero’s overthrow) and his court (including the usurping brother Antonio) stagger to the shore, unaware they are observed by the enchanted island’s inhabitants. With all who previously crossed him now in his power, Prospero can extract any revenge he desires.
Matt K. Miller again shows his Shakespearean mastery, though his easygoing Prospero is most comfortable jesting with Miranda and her suitor, Prince Ferdinand (Sam C. Jones), a shipwreck survivor. This light and bright “Tempest” keeps its distance from the poignancy of Prospero’s journey.
Everything about the island feels newly manufactured, from Prospero’s sturdy living quarters to the neatly pressed costumes that seem to have just come off the shelf. The idea that we’re looking at shipwrecked sailors or longtime DIY island dwellers never alights.
The production’s biggest stumbling block, though, is the casting of the always-dynamic Udoffia as the monster Caliban. Despite the resourceful efforts of Udoffia in creating a unique relatable character, it was impossible to shake the visual symbolism of the actor’s blackness as a depiction of Caliban’s negative otherness and so a reinforcement of an abhorrent stereotype. There is only one other non-European-looking performer (who does not speak) in the production to present a world of many possibilities rather than just the limited one depicted.
While this is clearly not the theater makers’ intent, it is nevertheless the message they have sent – one that will be seen by the production’s audiences, young and old, Shakespeare neophytes and experts alike.
What: Sacramento Theatre Company presents William Shakespeare’s play, with Matt K. Miller as Prospero. Aaron Galligan-Stierle directs.
Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, Main Stage, 1419 H St., Sacramento
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through March 19
Information: Tickets.sactheatre.org or 916-443-6722
Time: Two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission