As a vehicle to show off American Conservatory Theater’s post-quake Geary Theater home, one could hardly hope for a more technically spectacular shown than artistic director Carcy Perloff’s new “Tempest.” On every other plane, however, this production is one very mixed bag: Its frequently dazzling (and less frequently insightful) moments are compromised by uneven casting, as well as an oddly sterile distance from the Bard’s humor, turbulent emotions and narrative sweep. Conceptual boldness adds up to a worthy Geary kickoff effort overall, yet one whose falt passages make the evening seem far longer than it is.
The opening certainly raises expectations high. After a brief, pantomimed prelude, we’re startled by huge thunder claps, figures struggling to hold rigging against billowing-curtain waves, shadows glimpsed amid life-or-death frenzy. The evening’s real star contributor — local shadow master Larry Reed (“In Xanadu”) — is immediately clear.
Yet it takes some time before the human elements begin to approach that sonic and visual impact. When Prospero (David Strathairn) and daughter Miranda (Vera Farmiga) deliver their long explicatory monologue just after the opening storm, the tempo slackens to sudden torpor. A complexly plaintive tenor secures itself by the end; but similar vaults between the exhilarating and enervating occur throughout.
“The Tempest” is, of course, a tricky play, with its reckless balance of magic, comedy, sorrow and sheer perversity. Exiled Prospero, bent upon orchestrating his revenge (and eventual reconciliation), must command our attention as the puppet master of all events. But stage-to-film talent Strathairn doesn’t bring the role much weight. His brisk Duke of Milan, younger than most, cuts a biblical figure with his long robes, salty beard and gaunt tallness. Still, his clear prose readings deliver surprisingly little emotional presence, let alone wounded grandeur. He seems thinner than Reed’s light-on-paper figures.
Whiny-voiced Farmiga doesn’t essay a Miranda much worth winning, though David Cantor’s yearning Ferdinand does his best to suggest otherwise. The W.C. Fieldsian delivery of “L.A. Law’s” Michael Tucker as Trinculo seems rote. Yet he does match up well with Graham Beckel’s burly Caliban and scenestealing local clown Geoff Hoyle — a Wodehouse-worthy Stephano deliciously ersatz in every bluff-fancy move and pompous exhalation.
While he benefits most from movement consultant Margaret Jenkins’ input, David Patrick Kelly creates a rather cold, cautious sprite Ariel, whose indentured affection toward Prospero finds poignancy only through some clever design flourishes. Always superb James Carpenter (Strathairn’s understudy, alas) lends stricken dignity to Neapolitan King Alonso, who believes his son Ferdinand dead:z Gerard Hiken provides heartfelt moral ballast as loyal court counselor Gonzalo.
With equally strong turns by L. Peter Callender as a seething Sebastian and Michael Santo as a causally disdainful Antonio, their scenes of shipwrecked court intrigue rate among Perloff’s most forceful, despite their less fantastical or comie bent. (It’s worth noting that the finest performances she’s drawn are from Bay Area actors — which hardly alleviates the recent protest that local major rep companies too often cast out of L.A./New York talent pools, for limited artistic reward.)
Reed dominates a stunning tech package, projecting shadow-spirits onto every surface of Kate Edmunds’ beautiful, if coldly limiting, all-white set. At times he provides redundant echoes of live-performer action; but there are increasingly brilliant, suggestive effects, like the Prospero shadow that looms behind scheming adversaries, or the demons that frighten them later on. Reed adds immeasurably to the evening’s complexity.
David Lang’s score (played live opening week by the Kronos Quartet, then on tape) lends shivering string poignancy to some scenes — it should be employed less sparingly. Deborah Dryden’s eramulching costumes are another plus, and the newly state-of-the-art Geary itself contributes a turntable (rather noisy on opening night) to one pivotal scene.
This is one gorgeous, sometimes exasperating abstraction of a show: not a very good “Tempest,” perhaps, but intermittently striking as bold theatrical packaging. Such riskiness surely isn’t the worst way to rechristen ACT’s second Geary Theater ear.