If you hadn’t read director Nancy Carlin’s notes in the program, you’d be forgiven for not quite grasping the concept behind her version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at African-American Shakespeare Company. You’d probably think it was a sort of post-apocalyptic world, given set designer Bert van Aalsburg’s stage picture: sheets of rippling plastic that frame the stage, and piles of such industrial waste as blue plastic crates and tarps and electronic junk.
Carlin (an acclaimed actor, sometime director and emerging playwright) has updated “The Tempest,” in which Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan and now a sorcerer, has been living for 12 years in exile on an island, with his daughter, Miranda.
In Carlin’s vision, it’s 2020, and Prospero is the former CEO of a corporation called Sycorax, which illegally dumped garbage into the Pacific. Turned whistleblower, he’s been banished and has washed up on this island of human-made debris.
(Shakespeare’s Sycorax is the never-seen witch who once lived on this island and whose wild-child son, Caliban — portrayed with ferocity and exquisite dancerly grace by Michael Wayne Turner — is now Prospero’s resentful slave.)
It’s hard to fit Carlin’s environmentally conscious scenario with the Bard’s language, even if you have read the program, but it’s intriguing to track the way she and her team re-imagine visual aspects of the story.
Prospero communicates with his beloved sprite, Ariel (a captivatingly witchy Ponder Goddard) via what looks like a flashing Bluetooth on his ear, and consults an electronic hand-held device instead of a book for his magical spells.
Miranda (a prosaic Tavia Percia) wears a pouffy black plastic garbage bag for a skirt; appropriately raggle-taggle costumes are by Maureen “Mo” Stone. Images of Prospero’s enemies flash on a TV screen before they show up in person, refugees from the oceanic storm that Prospero conjured.
Relationships among the characters remain, of course, intact. Faring best amid an uneven cast are the trio who plot to murder Prospero: Caliban, the drunken Stephano (Kelvyn Mitchell) and buffoonish Trinculo (brilliantly performed by actor-clown Jonah Katz).
As Prospero, Michael Gene Sullivan, a versatile actor, playwright and director best known for his work with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, turns in a mannered, stylized performance, more caricature than character. But he becomes more fully dimensional toward play’s end, when the magician relinquishes his powers, forgives his enemies and sets Ariel free.
Still, in this production, the comedy works better than the drama and romance.
Presented by African-American Shakespeare Company
Where: African-American Cultural Center, 762 Fulton St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 9
Tickets: $15 to $34
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.african-americanshakes.org