(Caitlyn Louchard as Trinculo, David Sinaiko as Stephano, and Donell Hill as Caliban)
When you set out to stage The Tempest with only three actors, as director Rob Melrose has done at the Cutting Ball Theater, you add to an already difficult play inordinate confusion -- particularly in scenes with more than three characters. Before this production's intermission, however, when Prospero (David Sinaiko) uses his magical powers to simultaneously set in motion a love story and a revenge plot - all on a deserted island - Melrose almost pulls it off. He uses small but definitive changes (a dramatic shift in lighting and sound, an actress's switching her enormous spectacles for aviator sunglasses) to demarcate character and locale, to interesting effect: Shakespeare often intertwines multiple plots, all of which mirror each other, and seeing the same actors in different but parallel situations can heighten those scenes' impact.
Among the three performers, Caitlyn Louchard - as Miranda, Ariel and Trinculo, among others - thrives most under this directorial choice. She seizes it as an opportunity to demonstrate her range and skill: Her all-powerful spirit-figure is as convincing as her drunken clown and her sheltered ingenue. With her versatility and stamina, she finishes the job of character development that Melrose began with only a few small adjustments in mise-en-scene.
But after the intermission, Melrose inexplicably dispenses with the boundaries he had previously established. Costume, light and sound changes no longer signify what they had previously. It's difficult just to decipher which actor is playing which character, let alone what it's all supposed to mean. Even a recent reading of the text proves scant help. Amidst this chaos, the larger themes of Shakespeare's last great text - revenge and forgiveness, control and its renouncement, colonialism and its discontents - grow murky and, to the frustrated viewer, not worth the trouble to ponder.
The Tempest continues for one more week at the Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco. For tickets, visit http://cuttingball.com/