Cal Shakes gets terrifically Tempest tossed

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Catherine Castellanos (left) is Prospero and Amy Lizardo is Ariel in California Shakespeare Theater’s All the Bay’s a Stage tour of The Tempest. Below: Patrick Kelly Jones (lower left) is Stephano and John R. Lewis is Caliban. Photos by Jay Yamada

On a day when terrible things were happening in the world, being immersed in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest was sweet balm, especially as performed by the fine actors of California Shakespeare Theater’s “All the World’s a Stage” tour of the show, which, in classic traveling players mode, is being performed in senior centers, homeless shelters, federal prison, rehab centers and the like. It’s hard not to agree with Caliban when he says, “Hell is empty. All the devils are here.” But dark notions of revenge, which so inform the play itself, are soothed by virtue, and Prospero’s exquisite speech, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” is practically heartbreaking in its beauty.

Director Rebecca Novick’s fine-tuned production has a handful of public performances at the Oakland Museum of California in a space generally used as the museum’s cafe. There’s not lighting, save what’s already in the ceiling. The audience is cozily set up in four sections around a central performance space, and the two-hour production unfurls at a spritely pace, outfitted in lovely designs by Naomi Arnst that assist in differentiating the double-, sometimes triple-cast actors.

What set there is by Nina Ball is clever. A ship-shaped crescent is instrumental in conveying the play-opening storm that leads to a violent shipwreck. Then, as the action shifts to the island home of the wizardly Prospero, that crescent is turned upright, set in a cradle and serves as a throne of sorts, a point of power for the island’s master, or, in this case, mistress as Propsero is played by the commanding Catherine Castellanos. The pole that had served as the ship’s mast, is relocated to a tuft of grass and is climbed upon by the fairy Ariel (Amy Lizardo), or serves as a doorway through which we glimpse the newly smitten lovers Miranda (Tristan Cunningham) and Ferdinand (Rafael Jordan) staring googly-eyed at each other and arm wrestling.

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This is stripped-down theater at its best: words and performance, story and emotion. What I will take away from this enlivened production, aside from yet another reminder of how profound Shakespeare can be at acknowledging the darkness in the world while holding on to hope and faith in love and our better nature, are the magic of Castellanos in performance, the thrill of watching Cunningham and and Jordan convincingly fall in love in an instant and the genuine comic inspiration of the show’s clowns.

Cunningham doffs her maiden’s weeds to become Trinculo, a buffoonish steward from the wrecked ship, Patrick Kelly Jones is Stephano and John R. Lewis is Caliban, and the three of them, as they pass the tippling gourd, are outright hilarious. Sometimes the shift from the revenge plot (Prospero lands all her enemies on the island to wreak revenge) to the clowning makes me cringe. But in this production I actively looked forward to it. At one point, Cunningham came into the audience, plopped into the chair next to me and put her arm around me for much of one scene. Now that’s audience interaction I can get behind.

The revenge plot is also quite satisfying thanks to Liam Vincent as Antonio, Prospero’s dastardly, throne-stealing brother, Jones as the ruthlessly ambitious Sebastian and Lewis as the grieving king (he believes his son was drowned in the storm). Also in their company but not part of any murderous plots is Gonzalo, here played as pregnant woman by Carla Pantoja. There’s lots of strong female power on this island, and Pantoja’s Gonzalo is a powerful part of it.

Lizardo’s Ariel sings like an angel (accompanied by composer/musical director Olive Mitra on upright bass and a variety of percussion), and Kelly’s Stephano sings scurvy tunes like a natural-born sailor.

Castellanos ends the show with a powerful, emotional reading of Prospero’s famous speech, but the way she delivers it to the audience, all seemingly delighted by the two hours they’ve just spent together, feels intimate and personal, like she’s talking just to us and not over hundreds of years and thousands of productions of The Tempest. Again, on this day when more terror was causing more mayhem and pain in the world, it was impossible not to be moved by the words.
     “Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
     As I foretold you, were all spirits and
     Are melted into air, into thin air:
     And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
     The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
     The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
     Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
     And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
     Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
     As dreams are made on, and our little life
     Is rounded with a sleep.”

California Shakespeare Theater’s All the Bay’s a Stage tour of The Tempest has a limited number of public performances through Nov. 22 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. Tickets are $20. Call 510-548l-9666 or visit

Flames lick the American dream in Aurora’s Detroit

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The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s Detroit, (from left) Patrick Kelly Jones, Amy Resnick, Luisa Frasconi and Jeff Garrett, has a wild, neighborly backyard barbecue in the Bay Area premiere of Lisa D’Amour’s play. Below: The neighbors ignite a backyard bonfire. Photos by David Allen

There’s a particular kind of fear that grips those who have all the things we’re “supposed” to have – jobs, houses, marriages, ideals. The fear, of course, is not in the having of it all but in the potential loss of it all (or even in part). That brutal terrain shaped by anxiety is the real setting of Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, now receiving its Bay Area premiere from Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company.

There’s no indication that this four-person comedy/drama is actually set in the Motor City, but that’s as good a place as any to dive into the state of the American dream as defined by an economy that has all but destroyed a major American city. D’Amour’s story could unfold anywhere, in any suburban enclave that was built to house the hopes and dreams of families making better lives for themselves but is now crumbling and full of people isolating themselves from one another.

There are laughs to be sure in this 100-minute show, beautifully directed by Josh Costello and performed by an engrossing cast of actors, but the laughs come from a dark place shaped by our most primal fears of being abandoned by all that defines us and imbues our lives with meaning. It’s not easy to tread the line between laughs/entertainment and profound existential dread, but D’Amour does it, and Costello and his cast are right there with her.

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At a certain point in life, usually when you’re settled and entrenched in a career and a marriage, it gets harder to make new friends. That’s what’s initially so intriguing about “Detroit,” which has an older married couple, Mary (Amy Resnick) and Ben (Jeff Garrett) hosting a welcome barbecue for a younger couple that has just moved in next door. Sharon (Luisa Frasconi) and Kenny (Patrick Kelly Jones) arrive with plenty of baggage, but, curiously, with no furniture, very few clothes and a certain aua of mystery about them. Still, Ben and Mary are hungry for new relationships. Ben is especially adrift, having been laid off from his loan officer job, but he’s hopeful about starting his own online consulting business and is teaching himself how to build a website.

Mary longs for a civilized life (she serves caviar at a barbecue) and a friend to whom she can unburden herself. She hopes that Sharon will be that person. A midnight meltdown in the backyard tests that burgeoning friendship and reveals that Mary may have something of a drinking problem.

Amid musings on why neighbors don’t interact anymore and how there’s no longer any such thing as real communication, the two couples bond – somewhat awkwardly to be sure, but they’re definitely getting to know each other and all the good and (some of) the bad that entails.

There’s a real sense of momentum leading up to a barbecue that, with its hip-hop dancing and sexual surprises, turns rather primal rather quickly. To say the couples’ friendship sparks some flames would be an understatement. This extraordinary scene – so powerfully played by the superb cast – is funny and deep…and a little scary (it’s also nicely staged with the help of set designer Mikiko Uesugi and lighting designer Kurt Landisman).

The play really ends there, but D’Amour tacks on an unnecessary coda that requires one of the actors to play a new character. The scene provides some additional information that’s interesting, but it doesn’t really work as an ending, at least not the ending a play this potent deserves.

But it’s a testament to just how rich and disturbing this work (and this production) is that even a misstep at the end can’t detract from the fact that Detroit, laughs and all, exposes just how nightmarish the great American dream can be.

Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit continues an extended run through July 26 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $. Call 510-843-4822 or visit