San Juan’s Stage Left reprises production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’

I’m in this show. I participate in community theater and was a member of Island Stage Left’s production of "The Tempest" 10 years ago. Forgive me if this doesn’t read like my usual stuff.

I’m in this show. I participate in community theater and was a member of Island Stage Left’s production of “The Tempest” 10 years ago.

Forgive me if this doesn’t read like my usual stuff.

The cast members seem to look the same, although my addled brain tells me they’re not.

No matter. There have been many many newcomers to the island since Stage Left’s first production in the summer of 1999. And for us, it’s different from a decade ago. Different people. And director Helen Machin-Smith is emphasizing different things. What’s true for Miranda is true for all of us in the cast: “’Tis new – to thee.”

Ten years. Ten years of laughter, frustration, sweat, work, deep satisfaction and joy. From an actor’s standpoint.

From an audience’s standpoint, it’s been 10 years of the best dramatic theater this island has seen, by it’s only committed Shakespeare company.

Machin-Smith and Daniel Mayes — just Helen and Dan to most of us — have created something excellent and special and for this first of anniversaries they’ve decided to celebrate by returning to their roots: “A contract of true love to celebrate; And some donation freely to estate on the blest lovers.”

Those are just the summer offerings. There’s always a winter show too, smaller, more intimate.

All by donation only into the familiar golden bucket, for Helen’s commitment to having the arts remain accessible to all has never wavered. Love and commitment indeed.

There are 17 actors and a couple more behind the scenes helpers in this year’s production of the classic tale of a usurped Duke of Milan and now banished with his beautiful daughter Miranda to an island in the Mediterranean.

Through sorcery, Prospero raises a storm which attracts a nefarious cadre of culprits, including his wicked usurping brother, and others both political and comical and through magic puts the world right again.

Alongside Dan, there are several professional actors, working on Equity contracts this summer. Stage Left veteran Kevin Loomis is back to the island in the role of Caliban. Ariel is played by Khanh Doan who, together with Sylvie Davidson as Miranda, came up from Seattle’s professional theater scene. Both have worked at Seattle Children’s Theatre. All three are amazing to watch. Khanh’s movements are so expressive, she could almost perform her character without using words.

The rest of the cast is made up of familiar on-island faces and some not so familiar ones. Dorian Oliver is in the cast, as is Doug Schirmer, Ann Cozzalio, Theo Pratt, Patty Bair and me. And an equal number of “spirits” whose faces you won’t see, but who are utterly indispensable to the production.

For Loomis, coming back to the island is like returning to a well, of sorts. “It’s like coming home again,” he said. “Even though I live in New York now, I have dear dear friends here. My mother mentioned once, she said, ‘You seem changed up there.’”

Doan agrees. “It’s a diferent change of pace, for sure,” she said. Doan is used to the business of theater. “Three weeks and you’re up,” she said. “Here you can take your time and, especially with Shakespeare, you can let the words sink in and play with them.”

There’s something Helen does for each Shakespeare show at the point where the actors know their lines and are really beginning to delve deep into their character. She calls it “magic rehearsal.” It’s an all-day affair lasting late into the night. Helen blindfolded us and took us to a hidden spot somewhere on the island. It’s a secret even to Dan.

When our masks are removed and our surroundings revealed, we perform the play spontaneously, improvising everything but our lines. It’s incredibly liberating to “go nuts” with your character and the experience reveals different things for each actor. We end the day exhausted, but rejuvenated with our new-found take on the characters we play. I’ve never experienced anything like it with any other director.

This year’s newcomers to Helen’s way of doing things were “gobsmacked” – that’s the word for the cast this year – by the experience. “That magic rehearsal we did,” Doan said, “that was amazing.”

Garth McCardle loves coming back from his work-a-day world in New York to do a summer show. This year, he’s the drunkard Trinculo, and he plays it with such aplomb, we find ourselves stifling laughs behind the set, shushing each other so we don’t get Helen mad at us during rehearsal. For McCardle, ten year’s seems a world away. “It might as well be a hundred. It just seems like another life,” he said. “The interesting part is watching Dan play Prospero again. I think it’s deeper and more complex.”

“Shall I tell you what’s special about this experience?” Garth offers. “I first did theater on this island, since I was a teen-ager. I first did theater – here. And since then I have seen the professional world of theater. And it’s nice to come back to Stage Left, because some of the magic of theater is alive and well here, where it is not in the professional world. A lot of theatre in the professional world is a lot like a law office or a business. There’s a lot of drudgery, and exasperation – people get burned out. But here, there’s a sense of community that people have, of bringing it all together to present to their fellow islanders, it’s really special – and it’s rare. I hope people appreciate that.”

It’s true. For myself, I find performing for an on-island audience is like playing for family – or with family. The audience knows your history, and they smile to think of what you’ve got in store for them. It’s the least threatening thing I do.

Island Stage Left’s production of “The Tempest” opens outside at 1062 Wold Road July 18, and runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. The production moves to Roche Harbor Amphitheatre July 31 and plays Thursdays through Sundays through Aug. 10, and Wednesday through Saturday Aug. 13-23. All performances begin at 8 p.m. For more information, visit