Combining intriguing human and non-human characters and a heavy dose of magic, The Tempest is one of William Shakespeare’s best-loved plays.
The plot is well-known (even serving as the basis for the movie The Forbidden Planet): Prospero, a magician and former Duke of Milan, is living on an island for the past 12 years with his daughter, Miranda. A violent storm Prospero has devised attacks a ship carrying Alonso, the King of Naples, and other lords. Since one of these is Prospero’s brother, Antonio, who helped depose him, the stage is set for the magician to take revenge. To do so, he enlists the help of Ariel, a spirit, and Caliban, an island native Prospero has assigned to menial labor.
After Miranda falls in love with Alonso’s son, Ferdinand, and he with her, the plan for revenge takes a different turn …
Though labeled a comedy, The Tempest has enough pathos that it might be considered a tragic-comedy: brother betraying brother and planned homicides, a motherless child raised remote from the rest of humanity; a spirit created by a master takes leave of his; and the son of a witch who is treated as less than human rebels against, but then is reconciled with his master.
McSweeny beautifully integrates the actors, the set (including two levels of boxes on the sides of the stage), puppets, dance ensemble, and light and sound effects to produce magic of his own.
In the production at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, directed by Ethan McSweeny, the pathos seems to take second place to the comedy: the audience on opening night (December 8) seemed to relate most to the antics of Stephano (Dave Quay), a butler and drunkard, and Trinculo (Liam Craig), who get Caliban drunk and almost cause him to switch loyalties. Not that it’s unusual in Shakespeare for the comic elements to command attention, but the response here was a bit lopsided.
McSweeny beautifully integrates the actors, the set (including two levels of boxes on the sides of the stage), puppets, dance ensemble, and light and sound effects to produce magic of his own. For all that, not as much excitement was generated as might have expected. What also appeared to be lacking was a holistic view of the themes; I wondered what Shakespeare was trying to tell us, despite having read and seen the play before.
As production dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg points out in the program, The Tempest is set in a new world of colony and slavery, crying “for universal suffrage.” I’d like to have seen more tension between Prospero’s role as a deposed ruler and as a man who takes over an island with less than total compassion.
There is much about the performance of Geraint Wyn Davies as Prospero that works; he has the bearing, the gravitas, and the contemplative nature of a man who might be called a rational magician but also a man of action. But there were moments the actor spoke too softly or too quickly, so I missed vital lines. His relationship with Miranda might have been fleshed out more, but Wyn Davies’s freeing of Ariel and his acknowledgment of Caliban at play’s end were moving.
One doesn’t get to know much about Miranda (Rachel Mewbron) and Ferdinand (Avery Glymph) here. But they are appealing and believable as the mirror images of Romeo and Juliet—falling in love at first sight, but ending happily.
Sofia Jean Gomez (Ariel) spends most of her time airborne on wires—a la Peter Pan. She demonstrates an impressive agility and a delicate feminine side—Ariel has been presented in different ways—that makes her departure from Prospero almost romantic.
In contrast, the muscular Clifton Duncan as Caliban is very earth-bound. With his resonant voice, he brings dignity to the much-put-upon character. Duncan is clearly angry, if a little less menacing than other Calibans might be.
Gregory Linington is Antonio, and C. David Johnson is Alonso.
The ensemble danced and sang well. James Ortiz deserves credit for his design of the puppet-masques, which make the island’s magic both frightening and alluring.
Lee Savage designed the clever set, incorporating sand, a painted ship as well as well as the three-dimensional wreck. Jennifer Moeller, as costume designer, contrasted the Robinson Crusoe-type clothing worn by the marooned actors with the courtly dress of the recent arrivals. In one nice directorial touch, Prospero dons his courtier clothing so that the lords will recognize him.
Together, Christopher Akerlind, lighting designer, and Nevin Steinberg, sound designer, created believable sounds and sights of storms and a sun that “moves” about in the sky.
Jenny Giering wrote incidental music, which Matthew Gardiner choreographed effectively, incorporating native themes.
All in all, this production might be a wonderful way to introduce young people to the Bard. From December 13-20, the Shakespeare Theatre Company presents a special Family Week, featuring free programming for families and children of all ages that includes special events and activities at each main stage performance of The Tempest.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.
The Tempest plays through January 11, 2015 at Shakespeare Theatre Company in the Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20004. For tickets call 202-547-1122 or 877-487-8849, or click here.