Shakespeare Girls' Club

by Daedalus Howell

We are such stuff as dreams are made on," opines the redeemed sorcerer Prospero in the most famous line of Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest.

The quote could well be the motto for the Los Angeles Woman's Shakespeare Company's all-female production of the same: the show is a rich and lavish fantasy adroitly brought to the stage by director Lisa Wolpe.

Why an all woman production? The bard's best roles were penned for male characters, so it stands to reason that actors, regardless of their gender, would want to play them.

Granted, this is a reductive perception of the LAWSC's intentions, but when the lights go down, the play's the thing and on this score the company certainly triumphs.

The Tempest opens with some expository scene work that elucidates Prospero's backstory: Once a duke, he was betrayed by a cadre led by his brother and cast to sea with his toddler daughter Miranda and a library of books. They survive and begin anew on a New World island that they share with sprites and a deformed enslaved savage named Caliban.

More than a decade later, when a ship bearing Prospero's betrayers charts a course past his island, the wizard whips up a storm that separates and beaches the mariners, resulting in a handful of plots that braid revenge and redemption — all of which are aided and abetted by the "airy sprite" Ariel.

Prospero remains one of Shakespeare's most elusive but compelling creations. Ostensibly a revenge tale, The Tempest finds the peevish old man transforming from sorcerer to sage as his burgeoning ability to forgive becomes his most potent magic. This transformation is deftly played by Natsuko Ohama, who conveys Prospero's inner revelations with grace and subtlety. Not to knock the bard, but Ohama could have played the part completely with her eyes, uttering nary a word and still achieving the required emotional hues.

Oddly, director Wolpe opted for three Ariels (Louisa Jenson, Tessa Thompson and Cynthia Ruffin) instead of the customary single player. However, each performer has a specific take on the loyal sprite resulting in an Ariel greater than the sum of his parts.

Also noteworthy are Kimberleigh Aarn's facilely corruptible Sebastian and Cynthia Beckert's deliciously Machiavellian and fratricidal Antonio. Though relegated to one of the play's myriad subplots, these actors create memorable characters despite brief appearances. Likewise for Barbara Bragg, whose drunken butler Stephano delightfully recalls both W.C. Fields and the Cowardly Lion.

Judith Scott's Caliban, by design, is a revelation in repulsion. A seething humanoid bog creature (with a prominently featured moss-covered codpiece), Scott's tongue darts like a serpent's, and she amorously attacks other characters' legs like a dog. The effect is as haunting as it is entertaining.

Wolpe appears as the young swain Ferdinand, an admirable admixture of boyishness and regal bearing. The result is an even-handed characterization that evokes Ferdinand's innate confidence without resorting to schticky strutting and is a fine complement to boy-crazed Miranda (the stunning KaLing Cheung). Cheung manages emotional turns on a dime and generates a palpable sense that her character is truly in love.

Interestingly, only a few beats into the production, the cast's gender becomes invisible. It fades into a non-issue as the drama of their characters takes center stage. This is not because the performers "act" like men, or are convincing stand-ins (though most are wearing scruffy beards that would be the envy of the coffeehouse set). The irrelevancy of gender is testament to this fine production's mounting of the material, which makes it clear from the onset that it is not a novelty act or some cabaret drag show.

This is Shakespeare, expertly performed.

LAWSC's The Tempest plays through July 6 (Thurs., Fri., and Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. matinees at 3 p.m.) at the 24th St. Theater, 1117 24th St. Tickets are $12 to $20. For reservations call (800) 523-7097 or go to Free parking.

(page 21, 06/23/03)

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