Stage Left: Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival gets better

Adrian Chamberlain mugshot generic

Dogs in the audience sometimes yap, helicopters and buses periodically rumble by. On occasion, a curious deer will amble in for a look. Such distractions merely add to the fun of the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival, one of this city’s most charming summertime entertainments.

Now in its 28th season, the festival is staging two plays in repertory until Aug. 4: Pericles and The Tempest. This week, a record-setting audience of 245 gathered on the lawns of Camosun College’s Lansdowne campus to experience an enjoyable version of the latter, directed by Chelsea Haberlin.

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The Tempest benefits from a tremendously physical Caliban (Trevor Hinton), as well as lively comic interludes. And the show’s simple musical touches — flute, violin and drums — are a small delight. (A fleeting scene featuring a singing cross-dressed trio was particularly well-performed.)

It’s true this production isn’t as visually flamboyant as one might wish. The sub-plots could be brought out more clearly. Nonetheless, The Tempest is a highly agreeable way to spend a balmy summer evening.

While Pericles is less frequently staged, The Tempest remains an evergreen favourite. Prospero (in this show, a sorceress renamed Prospera) reigns over a mysterious island, accompanied by a daughter Miranda and Caliban, the wizard’s bestial slave. On the island, they encounter old friends and enemies who are shipwrecked thanks to Prospera’s spells.

There’s intrigue and oodles of exposition in The Tempest — but precious little in the way of plot. The lack is somewhat counteracted by the character of Caliban, a bizarre half-man/half-monster. He represents the “natural” (uncivilized) man — a notion that captivated intellectuals and the public in Shakespeare’s time, as explorers returned with wild tales of inhabitants of the New World.

Appearing almost naked save for a tattered loincloth, Hinton makes a wonderfully ferocious Caliban. His back is scored by whip wounds; he gibbers and drools feverishly; he crouches and capers like a caveman. He is, in short, delightfully horrible. Hinton — well known for his physical acting — is perfectly cast for the role, delivering a memorably savage performance on Wednesday night.

Like the rustics in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, the drunken buffoons in The Tempest are an audience favourite. Taylor Lewis, as the sack-swilling Stephano, provided a confidently heightened comic performance, paired with sozzled cohort Trinculo, nicely played by Daniel Saretsky. The scene in which Stephano mistakes Trinculo and Caliban for a four-legged monster (Trinculo is hiding under Caliban’s cloak) was a hoot, the fools’ fear contrasting with the monster’s troglodyte antics.

Ariel is played by Lara Hamburg in a suitably spritish manner, although the character’s puckishness might be further explored.

Microphone effects are well used in the scene in which Ariel mischievously impersonates Trinculo. That said, more could be done in visual terms to suggest the imp’s magical qualities. In many productions, Ariel becomes airborne thanks to cables. For an outdoor production on a limited budget, this is hardly practical. Still, simple and inexpensive devices such as a fog machine or parachute cloth can also be effective. The visual lack is perhaps The Tempest’s most noticeable flaw, especially since splashy imagery might compensate for the play’s sluggish plot. The production does boast a large cast. Perhaps a dance sequence (suitable given the popularity of the masque in Shakespeare’s time) might have given it a sense of pageantry and spectacle.

Wendy Magahay makes Prospera — sporting a leafy starburst collar — appropriately regal and mysterious. It’s an immense part and a somewhat static one, given the character mostly casts spells and then witnesses the results. Nonetheless, Magahay managed to imbue Prospera with a sense of humanity and power.

Some subplots are lost in the mix. Antonio and Sebastian’s scheme to kill King Alonso somehow seemed buried. It’s a shame, as such scheming gives The Tempest an undercurrent of drama and urgency.

For almost 30 years, the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival continues to improve and mature. The productions now achieve a more consistent standard — the mixture of experienced actors/directors and novices has increasingly gelled. This is a venture worth supporting, as more and more Victorians have discovered.

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