It may already be in production, but “La Tempestad” plays like a first draft. To his credit, scribe Larry Loebell thoughtfully tackles the rich subject of Vieques, Puerto Rico — an island that has long endured U.S. military testing — and demands to know what happens to native culture and American souls when someone’s home becomes a minefield. Along the way, he also makes sharp observations about everything from racism to homophobia. Clever thoughts, however, aren’t stageworthy by themselves, and though the play’s politics are meaty, the theatrical pickings are slim.
As his title suggests, Loebell has loosely adapted his script from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” but the connections are tenuous, like neat ideas that should have been cut as the piece found its own voice. Most notably, both plays share a cast list, but Loebell’s figures are so unlike the Bard’s that the overlap in names is a distraction.
For example, the modern Prospero, bracingly played by Gordon Stanley, is not a vindictive mage but a freedom fighter, protesting the military’s destruction of his homeland. And Caliban (Ray A. Rodriguez) goes from tortured beast to American double agent, spying on Prospero and delivering intel to the military at a hotel bar.
For the audience, time better spent paying attention to Loebell’s convoluted plot will be wasted noting how he strays from his source.
By hanging on to these Shakespearean elements, the playwright also corners himself into writing more characters than he can manage. If he weren’t so busy making sure he had a Gonzolo, too, then maybe he could provide the key players with distinct personalities. As it stands, everyone speaks in the same voice. Every speech has the same didactic language and unwieldy structure. That’s unfortunate for a play this concerned with cultural differences.
Granted, a little jargon’s necessary in a show about the military, but it kills some lovely moments. Take the scenes between lovers Stephano (Brian Flegal) and Trinculo (Patrick Melville). Passion just isn’t fiery when it gets funneled through sentences like, “Two days ago you proposed marriage to me in what was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
Troopers to the end, though, the cast deliver these bulky lines with flair. Flegal and Melville, especially, infuse what they’re saying with more life than it deserves, and director Eric Parness guides everyone to physical perfs that crackle with life.
The ensemble’s committed energy hints that “La Tempestad” could evolve into something better: Beneath the Shakespeare riffs and clunky speeches, there are signs of a gripping drama of ideas.