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Theatre Review: The Tempest at Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre

From+left%3A+Amara+Phelps+%28Ferdina%29+and+Jessica+Bell+%28Miranda%29+in+Long+Beach+Playhouse+Studio+Theatre%E2%80%99s+The+Tempest
From left: Amara Phelps (Ferdina) and Jessica Bell (Miranda) in Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre’s The Tempest

From left: Amara Phelps (Ferdina) and Jessica Bell (Miranda) in Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre’s The Tempest

Photo by Michael Hardy Photography

Photo by Michael Hardy Photography

From left: Amara Phelps (Ferdina) and Jessica Bell (Miranda) in Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre’s The Tempest

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The Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre presents, through Sept. 29, an appealing production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Director Mary Schaugh conveys this magical story with playful sound and lighting effects that engage the audience. She also feminizes two characters, King Alonso and his son, Ferdinand, who become Queen Alonsa and daughter Ferdina in this staging.

Prospero (Stephen Alan Carver), the rightful Duke of Milan, has been usurped by brother Antonio (Tyler Grey) and stranded for 12 years on an island with his teenaged daughter Miranda (Jessica Bell).
When Antonio and his co-conspirator, Queen Alonsa of Naples (Holland Renton), and her daughter, Ferdina (Amara Phelps), pass by on a ship, Propero creates a shipwrecking tempest with the help of magical sprite Ariel (Hayley Jackson) to wash them ashore.

Soon enough– by Prospero’s design– Miranda spies Ferdina and falls in love, which is understandable given that Ferdina is the first human Miranda has beheld besides her father and his slave, Caliban (Lee Samuel Tanng), a native “monster.”

Though Ferdina being a woman adds an interesting dimension to the love story, it changes the gender balance of the play, leaving Prospero as the relatively unchallenged male authority. Some of Propero’s warnings to Ferdina, such as to resist the “fire in the blood” that would cause her to break Miranda’s hymen also seem a bit strange, especially since Ferdina and Miranda are both rather genteel.

Thus, the gender rebalancing in this production, while commendable in principle, does not add much insight into gender roles. Queen Alonsa, too, seems out of place, wandering the island as the lone female with three males– Antonio, her brother Sebastian (Benjamin White) and the nobleman Gonzalo (Steven Biggs)– maternally and morosely preoccupied with the loss of her daughter.

But, two mainstay characters of this play are crafted exceptionally well by the director and each respective actor. Jackson as Ariel is delightful– a sprightly sprite, constantly in winged motion and with a wonderful singing voice. She is especially expressive, whether hesitantly hopeful about her freedom from Prospero’s servitude, giggling at her magical handiwork or furiously scaring other characters.

Tanng is equally expressive, embodying his challenging role as the threatening and sneaky Caliban. Caliban’s hoarse voice, semi-crawling motion, red-rimmed eyes and snake-like costuming (Donna Fristche) only enhance those qualities.

A subplot involving Caliban drinking heavily with hilarious minor characters Stephano (Alexander Shewchuk) and Trincula (Gillian Gonzales) mark welcome respites in the plot. Both Shewchuk and Gonzales excel in their clownish roles.

Rich with symbolism and affect, The Tempest is a story well worth experiencing, and this production is especially clear, despite the gender mixing, surely directed by Schaugh, just as Prospero’s hand invisibly guides events on the island to reinstate his and Miranda’s rightful inheritances.

Prospero says, at one point, that life is a dreamlike pageant and its actors spirits– a rather apt description of this ethereal play.

The Tempest continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Sept. 29, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $20 to $24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit lbplayhouse.org.

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Theatre Review: The Tempest at Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre