The Stormin' Conquest

Immediately before the opening-night performance of Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre's production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, downtown was appropriately drenched by one of Phoenix's surprise monsoon thunderstorms. Through much of the first act, audience members dried out in Planet Earth's stuffy, hangarlike theatre space, while the usual suspects romped through a surprisingly substantial adaptation of Shakespeare's final play.

After a year's worth of maddeningly dreary productions, Planet Earth has reclaimed some of its former spark with the first show of its new season. While director Peter James Cirino occasionally trots out some of his trademark tricks (ballerina nymphettes; preshow blackouts; hooded, half-naked muscle boys), much of his staging is inventive and new.

That's no mean feat. Although The Tempest, written in 1610, is one of the shortest in the Shakespeare canon, it's handicapped by interminable exposition and a climax that's a moral decision and not a staged action (the tempest of the title takes place at the top of the play). Cirino has wisely pumped up the volume on the play's music and flashy spectacle, constructed a nonstop parade of ornate imagery, and even pulled a couple of performances out of his largely untrained cast.

A tale of atonement and the contrast between nature and society (among other things), The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, who has been ousted by his brother, Antonio, with the help of Alonso, the King of Naples. With the use of his magic powers, Prospero draws this pair and a ship full of their compatriots to his island, where he seeks retribution and reconciliation with his brother.

The play is rife with allegory and so rich in meaning and poetry that even the most maniacal interpretations seem plausible--a fact that directors often exploit by embellishing its simple surface action with piles of implication. While Cirino's direction is occasionally indulgent (he pads Shakespeare's text with preshow material meant to introduce each group of characters), he mostly sticks to the play's uncomplicated plot. But just as one goes to a performance of any Shakespeare play expecting to see sprites and wizards and gem-encrusted royals, one attends a Planet Earth production expecting a multimedia presentation. So, when Cirino hauls out the audio-visual effects and the inevitable attendants in toe shoes (I've decided, after seeing a dozen of his shows, that Cirino is a frustrated choreographer), one isn't entirely surprised.

What is surprising is that the pageantry that has weighed down Cirino's work in the past mostly succeeds this time around. A transitional scene describing a storm at sea is staged here as a shadow play, using paper cutouts silhouetted onto a scrim. Ariel's numerous songs are sung over prerecorded audio tracks that give them an appropriately otherworldly quality. And making Prospero's adversaries--a group of shady fellows from Milan--into machine-gun-toting mobsters in zoot suits is downright inspired.

Less inventive is Cirino's tired habit of crowding the stage with extras. Why have one sprite, he seems to be saying, when you can have three? Although where actors are concerned, the rule at Planet Earth seems to be "quantity over quality," there are some solid performances here. Christopher Haines is a suitably bemused Prospero, pacing the stage and presiding with aplomb over the more energetic performances of his colleagues. Shel Bailey overacts magnificently as the beastly Caliban. And Mollie Kellogg Cirino is a winsome and attractive Ariel, a role usually played by a male actor.

In fact, most of the male roles here are played by women, an interesting contrast to the Shakespearean tradition of female roles assayed by men. Gender-bent casting is all very broad-minded, but in the case of The Tempest, it detracts from the antithetical pairings that Shakespeare has drawn. There are two of everything in this play--two fathers, two children, two kinds of magic on the island--each meant to contrast the other. These distinctions become less apparent when, for example, the lovers are both played by rather feminine young women, as they are here. And for all her attempts at portraying the King of Naples, Susan St. John comes off only as a woman in gangster drag.

But despite wacky casting and occasionally permissive direction, Cirino and company whip up a lucid and largely entertaining tempest. Larry Lepresti's delightfully demonic set is sodden with papier-mache skull masks and overflowing with the kind of creative staging that's a pleasant payoff after slogging through a thunderstorm.

The Tempest continues through Saturday, October 5, at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, 909 North Third Street.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela