First, the wallpaper: Giulio Perrone's set has electric-blue stone walls carved into human faces at the wings, topped with a skeletal dome of burnished gold, where a cartoonish sun and moon dangle. A rune-inscribed circle is painted on the stage. It wouldn't be so bad if the very blue rock didn't also have books jammed into it like enormous flecks of mica. Prospero's books! Get it? Walt Disney was never this whimsical. And Tom Lindblade's music sounds like a canned mélange of easy listening from KBLX-FM ("the quiet storm"): Ariel's songs are syrupy.
But with Vincent as Prospero, the play gets most of its dignity back. He manages his effects by not overdoing things, by finding a balanced rhythm and proper inflection for most of his lines. Sometimes he goes flat, and on opening night his big speech about abjuring "this rough magic" wasn't fully under control, but the epilogue's closing cadences felt modest and true. After seven years as a lead actor and three as the group's artistic director, this may be Vincent's valedictory show at Cal Shakes, so there's a sense, at the end, that Prospero is saying a personal goodbye, not just to magic and to island living, but to his loyal audience. It could easily be overdone, but it's not. Caliban, in this show, gets the very last word: From the top of the set he goes running off with an unscripted cry of, "Freedom! Freedom!"
Director Robert Kelley sets his version in Bermuda, because Shakespeare's source for the play was an account of a New World shipwreck that circulated in London around 1610. Traditionally the play is set on some fanciful island in the Mediterranean -- my book says "between Tunis and Naples" -- but placing it in the New World allows Kelley to envision Caliban as a Caribbean-inflected Rastafarian. This would be almost offensive if Peter Macon didn't play the character so well. Bare-chested, with tinkling jewelry and ragged pants, face streaked with blue paint, he seethes and howls; he hurls driftwood comically from a pit in the stage; he stands on one hand and kicks a leg whenever someone rebukes him. "The red plague rid you for learning me your language!" he hollers, famously, but in this case the King's English has a wretched eloquence on Caliban's tongue. Macon breathes new life into the role.
Comika Griffin, on the other hand, sounds mostly trapped by Miranda, as she has in smaller roles earlier this season. In the first scene she overemotes about the storm, and throughout the play a lot of her emotion feels willed. But in the scenes in which Miranda is excited by Ferdinand (and all the other men on the island), she shows fresh resources, and manages to be both natural and funny. This is more than I can say for Ferdinand (David deSantos), whose performance is as overwrought as his costume: He wears red velvet pants and a chest-baring swashbuckler's shirt, like a pirate on the cover of a romance paperback.
Although Marcia Pizzo is also saddled with a few heavy-handed touches as Ariel, she does interesting work anyway, wearing a wild white wig reminiscent of the old metal band Twisted Sister, which for me doesn't exactly evoke "airy spirit." Also, Kelley has her dance across the deck during an otherwise powerful storm scene (evoked with black billowing sails and thundering drums), waving a red hankie to show everyone that it's just a spell. But Pizzo finds a good bratty, tantrum-throwing edge to Ariel.
I should mention that Beaver Bauer's less-gaudy costumes are strong -- especially those for Caliban and the Renaissance-doubleted noblemen -- but so are her extra-gaudy designs, for Iris and Juno and Ceres. Prospero's conjured masque of goddesses involves a lot of queenish frills and fanlike shoulder ruffles; stars on stems wreathe fake masks above the actors' faces, and Ariel puts on a special suit that makes her look like something in a tide pool. For the first time the production's tendency to overdo things is appropriate. The music, however, gets even worse, and when Prospero dispels the masque by hollering, "Silence!" there's palpable relief in the audience. On opening night somebody clapped.
The three goddesses are played by a team of spirit-helpers called Qualities (introduced in an early scene, with "Ariel and all his quality"), who prance and sing, lay colored cloth to evoke water, perform mischief, and in general do the tricks that Prospero assigns to Ariel. They're black-clad, like kabuki puppet masters. It's a strong device. Trinculo and Stefano, the two bumbling drunks from the ship who plot with Caliban to kill Prospero, comically contend with a water-pit made strange by the Qualities; Benjamin Stewart, as usual, does funny white-bearded fop work as Stefano; Antonio (Jonathan Haugan) and Sebastian (Michael Storm) are also good in the confusion scenes seeded by Ariel.
But like every other production I've seen in Orinda, The Tempest has too many things wrong with it. It's backhanded praise to say this show might be the most successful of the Cal Shakes season; why the most prominent Shakespeare group in the Bay Area doesn't put on world-class productions is a riddle to confound Prospero and all his sorcerer's books.