When Shakespeare Meets Fracking

Prison reform, immigration policy, and the politics of drought all make an appearance in Cornerstone Theater Company's Shakespearean adaptation, California: The Tempest.EXPAND
Prison reform, immigration policy, and the politics of drought all make an appearance in Cornerstone Theater Company's Shakespearean adaptation, California: The Tempest.
Megan Wanlass

Shakespeare gets a contemporary, democratic, and highly customized makeover in California: The Tempest, a migrating world premiere from Cornerstone Theater Company, directed by artistic director Michael John Garcés. This touring production celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the community-based theater troupe’s Institute Summer Residency program, a month-long training academy in developing collaborative theater. The show’s latest stop is Pacoima, a working-class Latino neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, where local residents have joined the core cast onstage in a reimagining not only of the Bard, but the future of our state.

The gender-swap production follows Prosper (Bahni Turpin), a former governor of California deposed by her sister Antonia (Maria Cano) and banished to a remote mountaintop with her daughter “Minerva” (a clever nod to the Roman goddess’ appearance on the California seal, played by Karen Covarrubias). Determined to seek revenge after subjugating the local inhabitants Caliban (Peter Howard) and nymph Ariel (Chelsea Gregory), Prosper uses magic to arrange a series of cataclysmic disasters that down her sister’s plane, destroy the entire land mass of California and strand the survivors in the wilderness. The passengers’ meandering journeys to reconnect with the rest of their party — and their belief that as survivors, they’ll be responsible for building a new society from the ground up — provide an excuse to touch on all manner of contemporary ills, from prison reform and fracking to gun control and immigration policy.

Cornerstone cofounder and playwright Alison Carey’s clever ear not only recreates the iambic lilt of the original play, but freshens it with a Walt Whitmanesque, lusty zest for life. In one of Prosper’s monologues, Turpin paints a vibrant panorama of the state’s communities (which conveniently align with the production’s performance destinations), metaphorically conjuring “pollen-peppered air” and detailed domestic tableaux. The jokes are witty and on point, as when a lovelorn, impatient Ferdinand (Brent Grihalva) implores the equally besotted, innocent Minerva to “be the Yosemite to my Muir,” or when a passenger councils another to avoid cultural appropriation in picking a new name for Caliban.

This being a Cornerstone production, however, the points are never subtle, and the didactic interludes also prove some of the draggiest. This is the case with an out-of-nowhere scene near the end of the play, customized for this performance, in which adorable local kids suddenly appear to chime in on their hopes for a better California. Each airplane passenger also hails from a different geographic region, and despite nifty touches (costumes that reflect that area’s chief agricultural export), the hometown one-upsmanship, with some of the troupe’s least experienced actors, makes for slow going.

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The core story moves along pleasantly though, with Turpin a standout as the majestic Prosper and Grihalva and Gregory displaying technical skill with several physical comedy bits and fairylike flitting, respectively. The technical crew has also devised some nice evocative touches, with particularly artful puppetry projections designed by Lynn Jeffries. The Tempest it’s not, but Carey’s update makes for a pointed, thought-provoking challenge.

Cornerstone’s Pacoima run played for one weekend only, but the show returns to downtown Los Angeles June 18 – 20, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; outdoors at Grand Park, 200 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. (800) 578-1335, cornerstonetheater.org.


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