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A CurtainUp DC Review
By Rich See
Seen as an allegory of his own retirement from the theatre, The Tempest, as a play, offers a lesson in forgiveness and love. Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, is usurped by his brother Antonio with the assistance of Alonso the King of Naples. Smuggled out of town by his supporters and placed on a leaky barge of a boat, Prospero and his infant daughter Miranda eventually come upon a mysterious island where the Algerian witch Sycorax once lived with her son Caliban. When the two arrive on the island, Caliban shows Prospero Sycorax' magical spell books as well as helps the older man and his daughter survive the hardships of island life. As Miranda grows, Caliban becomes romantically interested in her, but since Prospero and Miranda view Caliban as an inferior, this attraction is not tolerated. The man is sentenced by Prospero to become their slave and be kept in bondage by the now very powerful magician's use of magical spells. During this time Prospero discovers the airy spirit, Ariel, who has been imprisoned within a tree by Sycorax. Upon releasing the spirit, he demands that the androgynous Ariel be his servant until a time when the spirit shall be set free. Many, many years later -- which is where we the audience come in on the story -- Prospero, with Ariel's help, creates a huge storm to swamp the boats of the King of Naples. The King, Alonso, along with Prospero's brother Antonio and the king's son Ferdinand are all shipwrecked on the island. The magus (magician) then sets about orchestrating a reunion of all, as he partakes on his own journey of forgiveness towards his one-time persecutors.
In order to bring out its relevance to contemporary audiences, director Kate Whoriskey has pulled a wonderful design team together and has tried the varied influences into the story. In addition, Ms. Whoriskey has included a fair amount of symbolism. It's an interesting touch, although based upon intermission conversation, I think a bit of it went over the heads of some of the audience members. Ms. Whoriskey's addition of so much cultural information makes the play much more complex, which is something some people may enjoy and others may find less appealing.
The image of Prospero has evolved over the years and the most interesting aspect of this production is in the role of the little seen Caliban. While Prospero is on a journey of forgiveness, the one individual he never truly forgives is Caliban. When the party leaves the island, Caliban is left behind -- one imagines thrilled in his solitude and reveling in happiness at finally being left alone by this group of self-important royalists. It's from this perspective of a colonizing, oppressive Prospero that Ms. Whoriskey would like the audience to begin to question our own American views -- especially towards Caribbean, African and Arab nations. However, in this production, Caliban is made to seem like some sort of angry, low caste savage, which doesn't really serve the purpose of the piece, except to show how dated the play really comes across. Although the script itself seems to point out the depths of the Italians' shallowness (British literature seems to have an ongoing issue with Italians.) Had the role of Caliban been played in a more literate manner, then one can imagine it would have much more highlighted the foolishness and shallowness of the rest of the characters. So while a great deal of Caribbean, Arab and African cultural references have been incorporated into the script, I'm not so certain that the desired points have been adequately communicated. This confusion is added to by the final scene of the production -- which by the way cuts out Prospero's epilogue -- and highlight's Ariel's journey of freedom instead of Caliban's. Perhaps one day someone will write a play from Caliban's perspective like Wicked takes the Wicked Witch's perspective of The Wizard of Oz.
Rob Besserer (flight director) has Ariel and other cast members spinning and twirling overhead in Cirque du Soleil fashion, while choreographer Randy Duncan, incorporates some wonderful dance moves that meld with Robert Milburn's and Michael Bodeen's original music and sound design. Together these effects add to the whole showmanship of the piece and to the play's magical elements. (There is an odd dance that father and daughter do on several occasions that is oddly out of place, and I was never quite certain what exactly it was all about.)
Set Designer Walt Spangler interweaves the broken hull of a ship into a dark, mysterious, seaweed covered, jungle world. The turning pieces create the two major aspects of the set. The water at the front of the stage with a tiny ship turned on its side, and a book set open, add to the island feel and storytelling aspect of the show. The curtain is a vertical blind of seaweed or jungle vines, while the backdrop seems to be a ship's sail. The lighting design by Charlie Morrison utilizes strobe lights, neon colors and other effects that make the shipwreck look as daunting as Miranda fears. The lighting also adds to the mysteriousness of the island.
Catherine Zuber's costumes give a sense of expensive fabrics under stress of the elements. Miranda's dress is a ripped, gauzy number. Prospero's magic cloak looks like a fine, oriental fabric. The rest of the cast is equally turned out in a variety of styles that look like they would be most uncomfortable to wear on a hot, tropical island. The make up employed on some of the cast is oddly done. Certain cast members faces are pale white, while others are a more natural hue. Again, the symbolism escaped me.
Within the cast, Philip Goodwin's Prospero takes a middle of the road turn -- he's neither completely good (as evidenced by his treatment of Caliban) nor is he completely bad (as we see in his struggle to forgive those who have wronged him). He also brings out Prospero's sense of humor. Daniel Breaker's Ariel is a fun-loving wood nymph-like creature. Mr. Breaker gives the airy spirit physical dimension and humor in the myriad ways he flits about the stage. One has to admire the actor for taking a role that has him flying around, never touching the ground for almost two and a half hours. Daoud Heidami's Caliban has an air of righteous indignation for his treatment by Prospero and Miranda. Mr. Heidami is good, however less hunchback-like running around would perhaps have given the role more dignity.
In the roles of the young lovers Ferdinand and Miranda, Duane Boutté and Samantha Soule are both believable as youthful romantics. As written, Shakespeare leads us to believe that if the two reappeared in a later work, their union might not be entirely happy. Miranda's affections are based upon Ferdinand being only the third man she has ever laid eyes on after her father and Caliban. And Ferdinand's affection seems to be entirely based in Miranda's beauty. Not exactly a deep relationship, as Prospero later notes.
Michael Rudko seems like a King of Naples sleep walking through the island jungle -- first devastated at his son's loss and then bewildered at Prospero's return. As Antonio, Prospero's brother, John Livingstone Rolle comes across as perfectly conniving and unrepentant. Even after the family reunion, one doesn't really have a sense that this is truly brotherly love.
Jeff Allin's Sebastian (brother of the King) offers us confirmation that the reigning family of Naples might not be the most strong willed. His quick convincing on the practicality of fratricide is completed in under two minutes. Almost as quick as Ferdinand's desire to haul wood under duress for Miranda, while Helmar Augustus Cooper's counselor Gonzalo comes across as less wise than humorously astute as to who pays his bills.
As the obligatory Shakespearian fools, Hugh Nees and Floyd King do double duty as Trinculo and Stephano. The two are a great comedy duo and play off each other's antics very well. While Mr. King is up to his usual wit with lines like, "This will shake your shaky," Mr. Nees is his equal when he opines, "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."
While not a perfect production, the staging alone keeps the speed of the story line flowing. Whenever there might be a lag in pacing, the production pulls out an interesting bit of spectacle -- pink jungle birds, dancing goats, Day of Dead figures. When the end drags a bit due to the Bard's rambling, Ms. Whoriskey and company grab our attention back to the stage with a truly beautiful candlelight scene. This might upset a purist; however for the theatergoer looking for entertainment, it works well. All in all, this Tempest is fun and magical as it melds English, Caribbean, Arabic, and African cultures to view Shakespeare's final work in a contemporary manner.
See our Shakespeare Page for links to other productions of this and other Shakespeare plays.
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
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6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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