Shakespeare has undergone a radical and very Californian makeover in a new presentation from L.A.’s Cornerstone Theatre, which has re-imagined the magic realism of The Tempest as a parable steeped in California politics, agriculture and the hunger that drives so many Californians.
In Shakespeare’s original text, the magician Prospero and his daughter Minerva are exiled to a remote island by his backstabbing brother.
In Cornerstone Theatre’s interpretation, Prospero is a black woman named Prospera. She is the deposed governor of California, brought down by her brother in a recall election. Prospera and Minerva are then banished to a remote corner of the state.
“His plan is leave her out in the desert, in the Imperial Valley for her and her daughter to die,” says California: The Tempest director Michael John Garcés. “The henchman who is supposed to do that feels sorry for them and actually hides them out up in the Lost Coast of California.”
That’s the rugged, mostly inaccessible stretch of coastline just south of Eureka in Humboldt County. Stranded on a windswept mountaintop, Prospera exacts her revenge, first by causing a plane crash and then by whipping up a most Californian natural disaster.
“Somehow through magic powers she’s acquired,” explains Garcés, “she engineers this illusion that there’s been this horrific storm and all of California has been submerged.”
Over its 30 years history, Cornerstone Theatre taken on subject matter that might give your average theatre company stage fright: illegal immigration, gay Christians and the battle over reproductive rights.
California: The Tempest is part of Cornerstone’s years long “hunger cycle” exploring issues of desire, addiction and food scarcity, says the play’s Oregon-based author and Cornerstone co-founder Alison Carey.
“California with the drought and demands on its resources, that literal hunger, there is that to be discussed,” says Carey. “And there is the question of hunger within all these different communities that are involved in this project that grow food but still have the problem of hunger among their community members.”
Cornerstone is staging multiple versions of California: The Tempest across the state through next year – with the majority performed in fairly remote farm towns in the Central and Imperial Valleys, says Garcés.
“You know you zip up and down the 5 or the 99 [freeways] and when we’re driving through these fields they are not empty,” says Garcés. “They are filling our supermarkets with food, plus the culture that is going on there. There is a real lack of understanding at least among some of our fellow urban Californians.”
In the play, residents of those Central Valley farming communities wash up on California’s golden shores, survivors of Prospera’s flood. They wrestle with weighty philosophical dilemmas and personal dramas driven by hunger –- for food, love and power.
Each staging will be adapted to reflect local issues, characters and lore. Cornerstone is also filling out its cast of professional actors with amateurs and non-actors drawn from each community.
“And they are going for it,” says assistant director Daniel Penilla. “Some of them have not have not had the experience of being on stage and working with Shakespeare but that’s exciting to us, that’s what it is about.”
At a recent table reading, Karen Covarrubias, who plays Minerva, worked over lines with the actor who plays her lover Ferdinand.
“I do stamp my passport at your national park never to leave its borders,” says Ferdinand, comparing Minerva’s beauty to all the natural beauty California has to offer.
“If I am a park, my wonders they are now yours to explore,” responds a breathless Minerva.
Twenty five year-old Covarrubias hails from the gritty L.A. community of Pacoima, one of the stops in the California: The Tempest tour. She’s not a professional actor but has done a few plays here and there and was a narrator in another Cornerstone production.
“I love the fact that they are so diverse, like all types of communities,” says Covarrubias during a break in rehearsal. “They feel like family to me. So it’ll be exciting once we bring it to Pacoima because we’re doing it on my birthday so my family is going to be able to see me.”
Garcés says that kind of community connection and rough-around-the-edges performance approach are key to Cornerstone’s success.
“What you sacrifice in craft I think you gain in authenticity of voice and actual passionate connection to the issues of the play,’ says Garcés. “And that brings the story and the performance events very much to life.”
For what may stir a tempest in a rough-and-ready farm town like Arvin — unemployment, underperforming schools, access to healthy, affordable food — may be a lot different than what raises the floodwaters in Pacoima or Eureka.
Penetrating and exploring the eye of those tempests is critical, says playwright Alison Carey.
“What in each of these communities are the things that they are longing to have more off and longing to have less of?” asks Carey. “How does our hunger to affect the future manifest itself in our day to day lives?”
That may be a lot to hang on the shoulders of William Shakespeare. So here’s another way to view California: The Tempest; as an edgy, irreverent re-imagining of Shakespeare that could only be made in California.
The first leg of Cornerstone Theatre’s California: the Tempest begins next month in the Central Valley town of Arvin, with performances in Salinas, San Francisco, Eureka and other cities scheduled through next year.
Funding for coverage of arts that explore social issues is provided by the California Arts Council.