Katherine Perello’s portrayal of Ariel may be the most awesome thing I have seen onstage in quite a while—and not just because the mischievous spirit in the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival’s staging of The Tempest rocks a brilliant blue Mohawk, shaved at the sides yet long and flowing in the back, with several airy tufts sticking up in the front like defiant little fairy horns.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- FORCE OF NATURE : Invisible spirit Ariel (Katherine Perello, center) thwarts the plans of Antonio (David Anthony Hance, far left) and Sebastian (Charles Hayek, far right) to murder Alonso and Gonzolo (Jean Miller and Bob Knowles, sleeping) in the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival’s staging of The Tempest.
Perello’s Ariel is elastic and unearthly, equipped with mystical powers and a sense of style best classified as amphibian ballerina punk. Her exotic appearance is further exaggerated by the other characters’ unwavering adherence to the period. Next to them with their Elizabethan costumes, Ariel appears the product of some alternate dimension.
This impression is a fitting one, as Ariel is invisible to all but Prospero, the exiled duchess of Milan. (Well, normally Prospero is a duke, but as he’s played here by Janet Stipicevich, his character has undergone a temporary sex change.)
Prospero and her daughter Miranda (Claire Harlan) have been banished to an unnamed island by Prospero’s jealous brother, Antonio (David Anthony Hance). A woman possessed of supernatural powers, Prospero has enslaved the spirit Ariel ever since rescuing her from a tree, in which she had been imprisoned by the witch Sycorax.
When Prospero discovers that her brother’s ship is passing the island, she enlists the spirit Ariel in conjuring a mighty tempest to run the ship aground. Also on board are “Queen” Alonso of Naples (another gender bender, played by Jean Miller), Alonso’s brother Sebastian (Charles Hayek), her son Ferdinand (Garrett Smith), and her advisor Gonzolo (Bob Knowles).
The island feel evoked by The Tempest is accentuated by the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival’s location—an outdoor amphitheater overlooking a lake, located on the River Oaks golf course in Paso Robles. (Most years, the festival stages two plays in repertory. This year, however, The Tempest, directed by Zoe Saba and Cindy Totten, is the festival’s only production, due to the venue’s limited availability.)
The play opens as the mighty tempest tears at Antonio’s ship, its passengers tossed to and fro like rag dolls. Standing at the ship’s bow (or just as easily its stern—with a spare yet dynamic set, we must flex our imaginations to conjure the vessel’s anatomy) is the sorceress Prospero. Apparently unaffected by the ship’s violent pitch and yaw, she looks on at the flailing bodies with a kind of grim satisfaction. When the ship eventually runs ashore, Prospero, with her witchy wiles, scatters the shipwrecked passengers, leaving one stranded party to think the other dead, and vice versa.
Alonso grieves the near-certain death of her son, Ferdinand, who is at that very moment actually very much alive and, led by Ariel’s singing, has wandered into the company of Prospero’s hot daughter Miranda. Incidentally, Miranda has never seen a man before—except for her mother’s obtuse, hairy servant Caliban (a hilarious Matthew Hanson), who might not be the same species, and also tried to rape her that one time. (Or, in Shakespeare’s majestically vague prose, sought to violate her honor.)
Miranda is understandably overjoyed to make the acquaintance of the more gentlemanly Ferdinand. As the bashful suitor, Smith is amusing: assuming their languages to be mutually unintelligible, he makes a great show of communicating with desperate hand gestures and loud, over-enunciated speech, like an American abroad. By the time they have established that they speak the same language, they have already fallen in love, fairytale-style. Within five minutes, they are making wedding plans. This is, of course, all in Prospero’s plan. However, not wanting her daughter to seem too easy, she begins to throw all sorts of obstacles into Ferdinand’s way, “lest too light winning make the prize light.” She makes Ferdinand her servant, pretending to believe him a traitor.
Meanwhile, the other shipwrecked passengers are having their own dramas. On one side of the isle, Sebastian and Antonio conspire to kill Alonso and her advisor Gonzolo, thus allowing Sebastian to take the throne. In another, the creature Caliban becomes drinking buddies with Stephano and Trinculo—two of the ship’s passengers whom he believes to have fallen from the moon. With so many wicked plans to thwart, Ariel is kept busy.
Again, the male characters Stephano and Trinculo are played by women (Cordelia Roberts and Robin Kirk Wolf, respectively). But in this case, their characters remain ostensibly male. Unfortunately, this choice doesn’t quite work. There’s just something really grating about female actors straining to speak in unnaturally deep, “manly” voices; it almost always feels inauthentic.
The decision to make the characters of Alonso and Prospero into women, however, largely makes sense, if you can look past their names—though it certainly alters the intended dynamic between them and the other characters.
Stipicevich, a Shakespeare Festival regular, has a commanding presence as Prospero. However, despite her controlling, vengeful nature and penchant for enslaving people, there’s also compassion in her portrayal, a certain softness that comes to the surface during her exchanges with her daughter.
As Miranda, Harlan does her best to enliven the role’s one dimension, which is nothing but gentle, virtuous, and good. Smith infuses humor into the longsuffering Ferdinand.
Hanson’s Caliban, sporting a suit of matted fur and the world’s silliest ponytail, is one of the play’s funniest characters, especially when he discovers booze.
But, though Prospero may be in charge, it is Ariel who holds the play together; a dainty spirit running a magical thread through each subplot, waiting for the right moment to cinch them all neatly up together. All the while, she is crouching, slithering, observing, and influencing—in an ever-changing array of bizarre fashions. Ariel may be invisible, but more often than not, Perello and her blue Mohawk steal the scene.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner can weather the storm. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.