Summer is almost gone, at least that official version that stretches between Memorial and Labor Days, but it’s still possible to catch that theatrical hallmark of the season, Free Shakespeare in the Park.
And there’s a particularly good production of The Bard’s last great play, the work some consider his valedictory piece, at Lakeside Park in Oakland, ending its brief local run this weekend.
To say there’s a tempest on Lake Merritt sounds a little like Katrina in a teacup, but The Tempest plays beautifully on the shores of the lake, its castaways, spirits, aboriginal man-monster, magician, lovers and rustic clowns in their element under oak boughs near the waters.
Kenneth Kelleher has outdone himself as director in putting together a production for San Francisco Shakespeare that is an original staging that plays very well outdoors.
Facing the lake is a sea-green set (Richard Ortenblad’s design) with jagged walls inscribed by text—is it magic formulae, or pages from Renaissance notebooks?—a Leonardo drawing and an astrolabe are among the figures.
Doors open and close with sudden comings and goings, as if out of thin air. There’s a throne elevated on a ladder. Prospero (a magisterial Julian Lopez-Morillas) is occasionally seen hovering in a doorway, sitting on the throne, always watching unseen. And the action is vigorous, overlapping the natural and supernal.
Prospero, deposed as Duke of Milan by his brother Antonio, is in exile on a tropical island (some say Bermuda was the model). Having studied magic, he conjures up the storm of the title to shipwreak his brother and party, which include Alonzo, the King of Naples (Lewis Sims) and his son, Ferdinand (Daveed Diggs).
All this he explains to his daughter, Miranda (girlish Julia Moytika), as the spirits who attend on him (Brian Levy, Adam Kenyon Venker and Shannon Preto) move rhytmically, rocking a skeletal model ship.
In aquamarine jumpsuits, faces obscured by colored mesh (Todd Roehrman’s costumes) the spirits are like artists’ mannequins grown life-size, well-choreographed, like all the cast (by Mary Beth Cavanaugh) to anthropomorphize the magic, or flop like spent ragdolls around the set when unused.
The castaways, passing ‘round a flask, are clad in baggy, quilted mock conquistador garb, and are visited by Prospero’s familiar spirit, Ariel (also a flighty Motyka, just one of the innovative double roles), who makes them sleep (“What a strange drowsiness arrests them!”) and wake (“I heard a humming, and a strange one too, that did awake me.”), and sings to them (including the exquisite “Full Fathom Five/Thy Father Lies.”
Julia sings them well, to the tune of harp or lutes, with Chris Houston’s soundtrack wafting up into the trees and out over the lake.
Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love at first sight, and, though outwardly stern, Prospero confides to the audience, “It works!” His magic has other purposes than revenge.
There are wonderful scenes, as when two shipwrecked (and hilarious) clowns, Trinculo (Brian Herndon, who also plays Alonzo’s morally equivocal brother Sebastian), a jester, and Stephano (Michael Ray Wisely, also Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio), a drunken butler discover each other (“What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive?”), and also Caliban (a fine Daveed Diggs again), Prospero’s unsettling halfbreed slave, himself discovering their hootch, thinks them gods.
A very funny moment in all this is also the origin of the famous line, “Misery makes strange bedfellows.”
This small and talented crew (which includes excellent Gary S. Martinez as Gonzalo) keeps the audience, sprawled out on the grass, rapt with enchantment, as a couple late summer hours float away by the shores of Lake Merritt.
Presented by San Francisco Shakespeare at 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Lakeside Park, Lake Merritt (corner of Perkins and Bellvue streets), Oakland. Admission is free. For more information, call (415) 865-4434.