In a basement rehearsal room of the Cesar Chavez Student Center, the lights go dark. The audience falls silent. A series of bodiless voices begin to sing, “Sweet dreams are made of this,” in a 1980s-themed homage to open BareStage’s current production: Williams Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
What exactly “The Tempest” — a tale of the revenge of a magician-duke conned out of his dukedom and stranded on an island with only his daughter — has to do with the 1980s isn’t ever made clear. But after the opening singing sequence, the music and neon colors of the ’80s recur throughout the show, transforming the play’s normally stark island vibe into a vibrant and slightly sassy rock-themed production. Even though the 16th century and the 20th century do not usually blend successfully, in this they do so entertainingly, yanking the audience out of their seats.
Far from the stiff-necked snobbiness that characterizes many versions of Shakespearean plays, the BareStage production infuses the “The Tempest” with a lightheartedness that the show’s makers hope will allow audiences and actors alike to engage with the story more completely.
“Greg, the director, was incredibly open to our own ideas, and that made the environment much more exciting and fun,” said Lana Cosic, who plays Miranda. She recalled working with fellow cast member Titus Ting, who plays Ferdinand, to develop “sexy chess noises,” which are, unsurprisingly, not in the original version of the play but do contribute to the hilarity of one of the final scenes of the show.
Besides allowing actors some creative power in developing their own characters, student director Greg Zoumaras also formed a new, almost cinematic perspective of one of Shakespeare’s original characters. Under Zoumaras’ direction, not one but six actors working in tandem with one another come together to rather brilliantly portray the sprite Ariel. The power and chaos usually condensed within one single amorphous figure and a few minor characters is contained, in this production, within a Cerberus-like conglomeration of men and women. Through their separate but choreographed actions and voices, the actors and actresses seamlessly perform the work that special effects do in film, conveying Ariel’s inhumanness, his insubstantiality and, perhaps most importantly, the extent to which his magical power controls the other characters.
Ariel, as a collective character, creates and maintains the ethereal undertones of the production, while other visual aspects — the neon green and pink painted set, the perfunctory costumes — prove to only weakly capture the vivid imagination behind this maelstrom of a play.
Meanwhile, many of the other casting choices are equally as interesting as the creation of the collective Ariel. Most prominent is perhaps the choice to cast almost all of the lead male roles as females instead: Prospero becomes Prospera (Tiana Randall-Quant), Alonso becomes Alonsa (Ash Razavian) and so on.
The actors’ portrayals of these characters adequately encompass the nature of the characters, though, for the most part without any dynamic standouts. The exception is the darkly comedic trio of Trinculo (Hanah Chang), Stefano (Savannah Frisk) and Caliban (Aiden Olsen), who break out of the lethargy that seems to encompass the other characters during the middle of the play and who generate waves of laughter across the audience.
This production won’t go down in history as one of the most extravagant productions of “The Tempest,” but it does not seem to want that kind of legacy to begin with. An unconventionally clever take on the 400-year-old play, BareStage’s “The Tempest” confines itself to grandiosely depicting a few key details — such as Ariel’s character and the inserted ’80s soundtrack — and then toys around more subtly with the rest of the production through particularities in characterizations and specificities in appearance, such as the Kiss-esque makeup adorning a few of the spirits.
The production embraces its role as a student production, experimenting with unorthodox elements and catering to the visually stimulated imaginations of its audience to form an imperfectly engaging experience.
“The Tempest” runs until Sunday.