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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
William Shakespeare's The Tempest is the play that launched Bonnie J. Monte as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in 1991. After twenty-three years of contemplating and considering the many ways there are to interpret the Bard's fantastical tale of forgiveness and reconciliation (based on her director's notes), she has returned to it with renewed appreciation for its complexity and for the play's aim to "please" (quoting Prospero).
With commendable if not startling results, Monte's vision and perspective is above all both personal and pleasing. Only Bardologists and others who have seen the play numerous times can say whether or not she has approached it with a new or previously unexplored insight. For the rest of us, it is a visually arresting production that doesn't attempt to either awe us with special effects or embroider its psychological subtext. Nevertheless, the aura of magic and mysticism looms over it as impressively commandeered by Sherman Howard's tempestuously tempered performance as Prospero.
Eliminating the usually obligatory stormy sea and shipwreck, the prologue is a fury-driven sound-scape as it is harnessed in Prospero's mind. Standing atop the craggy terrain of his island domain, he waves his power-invoking, serpent-entwined staff. A bluish green hue (stunning lighting by Tony Galaska) adds an eerie quality to set designer Brian Clinnin's impressive unit setting of scaling rocks, a cave, even a small pond.
There is actually less plot than meets the ears in this comedy that seems to be about how much of your world you are willing to give up in gaining the world. The play reveals how Prospero, after unfairly getting the gate as the Duke of Milan, is set adrift at sea to die along with his three year old daughter Miranda. They are marooned on an island inhabited only by some strange creatures.
Surviving for twelve years by his own wits and the wisdom derived from his only possession, a book of magic, Prospero becomes a student of metaphysical science and controller of nature on an enchanted land. With his devoted servants, the spirit Ariel and the monster Caliban, the grotesque son of the witch, Prospero reigns supreme . . . that is until the day the survivors of another shipwreck make it to shore.
It is refreshing to hear Howard pontificate on Prospero's philosophy and give out orders without recourse to ranting or bombast. If anything, Howard is eager to reveal his playful side as well as his considerable abilities as a dedicated student of wizardry. To be honest, it's a wonder that the creatures under his rule, even Mother Nature herself, take him all that seriously.
Even Prospero's daughter Miranda, who has no memory of having ever seen a man except for her father, seems to take his self-imposed grandiosity with a grain of salt. Lindsey Kyler is a delight as the winsome, charm-infused Miranda. Erin Partin is quite unlike any lively spirit or precocious sprite I've seen before as her Ariel slithers and undulates through the proceedings as if her bones and muscles were made of the same yellow ribbons that ripple decoratively from her pretty head to her bare toes. It was more than the yellow ribbons that made me admire the mostly sedate yet fanciful costumes designed by Murell Horton.
There is a humorous edge to the lizardry of John Barker as the devilishly duplicitous Caliban who seems to have been given the ability to appear at will either as a scruffy, dirty and deranged hybrid of nature or as a growling reptile with cloak of scales. Oh, well. Jackson Moran is fine as the "goodlier man" that Miranda falls for at first sight. If I can pick my favorite supporting player it is Richard Bourg, who, as the "good old lord" and philosopher Gonzalo, made every word of council worthy of our attention.
As I am rarely inclined to enjoy the various dopes and drunks that cavort through Shakespeare's plays, I have to admit that Patrick Toon, as the jester Trinculo and Jeffrey M. Bender, as Stephano, the King's butler made me laugh, especially in the scene in which they conspire to get the gullible Caliban drunk. Acknowledged as Shakespeare's last masterpiece, The Tempest can also claim its place as his most personal. It is the awareness of the personal that makes Monte's production stand out among others.
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