Livermore Shakespeare Festival presenting 'The Tempest'
at Wente Vineyards
By Lou Fancher
In some ways, every production of a Shakespeare play in 2016 is a death-defying war cry: "I might be old, but I'm still relevant!"
During this 400th anniversary year in which theater companies worldwide acknowledge the passing of the Bard by breathing new life into his works, the Livermore Shakespeare Festival presents "The Tempest'' at Wente Vineyards Estate Winery and Tasting Room from Thursday through Aug. 7. A companion play, Jane Austen's "Persuasion" -- astutely crafted in an adaptation by Bay Area favorite Jennifer LeBlanc -- balances the season and offers performances through Saturday and July 23-24.
'Tempest' is considered Shakespeare's last play, with references to the kinds of things people think about toward the end of their life," says Producing Artistic Director Lisa A. Tromovitch. "It's full of lines that have a sense of finality. The whole play is a metaphor for his artistry, for his leaving playwriting and going home."
Tromovitch says leaving involves more than just physical departure. Lines in the script about regret are used by Shakespeare to suggest not beating oneself up but instead using the sentiment to become alert to life.
"Be present with those around you and move forward from there," is what Tromovitch says is the central message of the play she is directing.
"Tempest" is essentially a story about a man, Prospero, who is betrayed by his brother, Antonio. Interestingly, the two characters share few scenes together -- and in those scenes, one brother hardly speaks and a silence fills the most climactic moment. Finding a through line for the production with this unusual setup has been a tricky business made easier by the fine cast Tromovitch has pulled together.
For the role of Prospero, Livermore Shakes has snared a former American Conservatory Theater member of 23 years, Lawrence Hecht. Recently returning to the Bay Area after 18 years directing works at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Hecht's rehearsal approach suits Tromovitch's collaborative directing style perfectly. Instead of intellectually plotting out what each interaction should be ahead of time, the actors build relationships during the rehearsal process.
"He elicits true responses from his partner actors. He's so strong as an artist, I'm there to provide feedback, but I don't have to (determine) all of it," said Tromovitch.
Tromovitch likely has more impact than she suggests, especially as her motivations for selecting "Tempest" are intensely personal.
"Sometimes, I choose a play for what I think the audience needs. (On) this one ... I've been through two rounds of chemo in the last five years. You start to take your life seriously, you want to be the best you can be, not waste time. I want to be grateful, to cherish things. Prospero cherishes his daughter and his family.
"What I'm trying to take out of it is a sense that you can change the way you think about things in your life, like giving up magic (as Prospero does) in order to have a family. It might be a big choice; the way you value or judge things is ultimately up to you. You can be traumatized, or get a good lesson from choices."
Of course the greatest challenge to outdoor theater is dealing with the elements -- a real storm might add drama to the play's infamous squall scene that happens early in the show -- and the limitations.
"We can't do a blackout or have things fall out of the ceiling when we're outside a theater. I keep solace in the fact that in Shakespeare's day, it was limited also. We rely on the actors and keep our faith there," she said.
She hopes to be able to use fire effects. Actors in motion, vast expanses of swirling cloth, and thunderous sound provided appropriately by old-fashioned thunder sheets will create the magic of the tempest. "We have 3-foot-by-4-foot galvanized steel panels that we shake, and it sounds wonderful," says Tromovitch.
Austen's "Persuasion" offers a more diffused, satirical approach to its tale of second chances and decision making. Nonetheless, Tromovitch says playwright LeBlanc's bright intellect and compassionate emotionality as a writer bring remarkable vigor, depth and balance to the adaptation.
"What's interesting is our audience, which is definitely flourishing. Coming to the end of the three-year commitment I made to producing Austen and Shakespeare plays each season, we've built a highly intellectual audience that craves rich storytelling with comedy and love included. Our audiences are sweetly demanding."
And this season, those audiences will appreciate knowing their voices have been heard more than ever. "The main audience complaint last season was about the chairs," says Tromovitch. "The overall word was our rented chairs weren't cutting it, so we bought new chairs."
An added note: Livermore Shakes' "So Wise So Young" in-school education program, which brings festival artists to all of the 37 second-grade classrooms in the Livermore Joint Unified School District, continues in 2016-17. Students are introduced to Shakespeare's legacy, and the program's language-arts curriculum is aligned with Common Core Literacy standards.