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Shakespeare’s The Tempest is one of his most delightful plays, and not only for its many pleasant aspects. A story’s told from start to finish, and in it wrongs are righted, men better themselves, and a love match is made. Spirits and monsters can be seen and heard. There are ridiculous pratfalls and tender revelations. There’s music, and language that could be called the same. But no matter what interpretation du jour is laid upon the script, the play’s meditation on the magical power of words and stories to create and shape life is what makes it so engaging each time one sees it, and so worthy of seeing again and again.
PlayMakers Repertory Company has just opened a refined and visually-lovely new production of The Tempest in the Paul Green Theatre, co-directed by PRC’s Joseph Haj and Dominique Serrand, who directed last season’s The Imaginary Invalid. The two directors complemented each other well; their work balanced the intellectual, emotional, and dynamic, never sacrificing the clarity of the speeches to the wave-like action of the choreography. Nor was the activity constrained by declamation — Prospero’s speeches, in particular, were often spoken from a dervish of motion. The majesty of this shifting balance of the elements was amplified by the music composed and played by Ari Picker and Emma Nadeau (of Lost in the Trees) from the balcony stage right, and augmented by the unusually wonderful (even for PRC) design work by McKay Coble, Jan Chambers, and Jade Bettin.
The palette for the set is pale and gold-tinged for the palace of books, but before it lie two dark pools filled with transforming water and the mysteries it hides and brings to surface. The pools are nearly as much characters as places, expressing themselves through Marcus Dilliard’s clever lighting. The islanders are dressed in pale creams and earthy golds, the shipwrecked courtiers and sailors in deep jewel colors and rich fabrics. Ariel’s costume is simply brilliant, and the monsters who do her bidding have been given skins just as monsters should have.
The Tempest is full of changes and transformations, but for this production some of the transformations occurred ahead of time. Prospero, the deposed and deported Duke of Milan, who fetched up on a lonely island with his infant daughter and a boatload of books, was played authoritatively by Julie Fishell. As anyone knows who was lucky enough to see her in Beckett’s Happy Days, Fishell can find the music as well as the meaning in a text, and here she reached an even higher level of expressivity with her voice. Every speech was richly nuanced and she rode the rhythms of the language without hurry or delay as she whirled around in Prospero’s magic coat and scraggly beard.
The lesser but critical role of King Alonzo of Naples is taken by stalwart Kathryn Hunter-Williams, who can play anyone, and who gave the King more dimension than one generally sees in the role. The drunken sailor Stephano, who would be king of the island, thinking all his shipmates save the buffoon Trinculo have drowned, and who has all the funniest bits in the show, was given a robustly ridiculous portrayal by Julia Gibson. John Allore as Trinculo surpassed himself in comedy. As the slave-monster Caliban, Jeffrey Blair Cornell had humorous moments, but he eschewed his habitual comedic manners to give Caliban both ferocity and true pathos.
Although it is refreshing to see women getting a chance at roles, especially that of Prospero, from which gender has historically excluded them, complete gender swapping would be too much. The lovely, innocent Miranda, daughter of Prospero who has never seen another female (and only her father and Caliban in the way of men), happily is played by the lovely Caroline Strange, who brought thrilling freshness to her lines, even the “O brave new world” speech. She and Brandon Garegnani as Ferdinard fell very believably in love at first sight, and there was some adorable stage business that went along with their besotted words.
Ariel, the airy spirit longing for her freedom, who serves Prospero as he orchestrates his tempests of change, is a particularly difficult character to get right on stage. Maren Searle gave us an exquisite Ariel in a fearless performance involving the portrayal of states ranging from pleading submission to spell-casting power, moving like a dancer in her sheer bodystocking and singing like an angel. If she hadn’t been grounded by such a strong cast (including Ray Dooley, fine as the good old Gonzalo), she would have undoubtedly flown away with the show.
The Tempest will be performed in rotating repertory with Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (based on the myths of Ovid), through Sunday, December 8. Many of the same actors appear in both plays, giving the audience a chance to witness their range and stamina. For more details on The Tempest, please view the sidebar.