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Subterranean take on ‘Tempest’ tale taxing

By John Angell Grant Daily Planet Correspondent
Saturday March 17, 2001

Last weekend Subterranean Shakespeare began its 14th season of low-budget productions of the Bard at LaVal’s Subterranean with a modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s last play “The Tempest.” 

“The Tempest” is the story of a magician giving up his magic powers and retiring from the world. It is often viewed as an allegory about Shakespeare himself giving up the theater and retiring from London back to his land and prosperity in Stratford, where he was born. 

For this production, director Stanley Spenger has done some gender-bending, casting several women to play the parts of men. In addition, he has changed several of the characters in the play from male to female. 

These gender decisions, however, are haphazard artistically, and don’t serve a clear vision for the play. 

For example, in one scene in this reconfigured casting, two men from the shipwrecked court of Naples rudely insult two women of the court. This behavior profoundly contradicts the important etiquette of Shakespeare’s world of courtly manners, but without adding new insights to the story. 

In “The Tempest,” magician Prospero lives with his daughter Miranda (Jasmin Fiandaca) on a lonely remote island, after losing the dukedom of Milan to a conniving brother. 

As the play begins, Prospero is able through his magical powers to create a storm that shipwrecks onto the island the treacherous brother and his allies from back home. So in part the play is a story of Prospero’s family reckoning.. 

But “The Tempest” is also in large part a romance and a comedy. Drunken shipwrecked sailors stumble comically around the island, and a young couple falls in love.  

The Sub Shakes staging is a no-frills production that focuses on the words, rather than the visuals, and completes the play in a brisk two hours and fifteen minutes, including an intermission. 

I have mixed feelings about the Subterranean Shakespeare productions that are directed by Spenger.  

On the one hand, as the driving force behind the group for many years, he is to be commended for giving Berkeley so many affordable productions of these classics. 

On the other hand, although some of the directors who stage plays for him are good, Spenger himself is neither a strong director nor a strong actor. 

Despite cooking up a clever low-budget makeshift shipwreck to open “The Tempest,” Spenger loses much of the humor, magic and poetry of this play in this production. 

For example, the usually riotous three-way drunk among monster Caliban (Geoffrey Pond) and shipwrecked sailors Trinculo (Diane Jackson) and Stephano (James Ryder) is rushed and hammy.  

There are few opportunities in this staging for the comical reaction shots, double takes and visual humor that this segment generally contains. 

Often the actors in this production look like fish out of water, performing without the thoughtful guidance that a good director can provide. There is lots of standing around by performers who don’t have lines to speak. 

Gregory Pond’s buffoonish Caliban doesn’t feel like a monster. The show’s blocking is muddy. 

Nor is Spenger a strong actor. In “The Tempest” he has cast himself in the central role of ringmaster magician Prospero. 

Spenger obviously loves the poetry of Shakespeare, but he largely mugs and poses his way through a childish and mercurial portrayal. Basic craft elements are missing from his acting – like performance objectives and focus. 

Spenger appears to be a theatrical autodidact, and it shows in this production. If he worked on the craft seriously with good teachers, he could make his shows better. 

That’s what it’s going to take to get the plays he directs and performs in at LaVal’s to the next level. 

Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for "American Theatre," "Callboard," and many other publications. E-mail him at