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A CurtainUp Review
The Tempest
As you from crimes would pardoned be,/Let your indulgence set me free..— Prospero
Harriet Walters
Phyllida Lloyd's new all-female production of The Tempest shakes out the Bard's great romantic masterpiece reminds us that theater can be the best antidote to dark times. It's Lloyd's third—and, I think, best--prison play.

While I enjoyed her gritty Julius Caesar in 2013, and condensed Henry IV in 2015. , this final installment to the trilogy offers something that the others didn't: a redemptive ending. In fact, one doesn't have to stretch to divine the transcendent message of this play. It's eloquently intoned by Prospero in the Epilogue: "As you from crimes would pardoned be,/Let your indulgence set me free."

Lloyd's radical idea is to relate the conceit of a women's prison with the larger framework of Shakespeare's play. The action begins with Harriet Walter, as the prison character Hanna (she's based on a real-life American prisoner Judy Clark), soberly explaining why she is a lifer sans parole. As Walter finishes the confessional speech, the play proper begins. Yes, we listen to rolls of thunder reverberate through the theater, and the titular storm spew out its fury. We watch the cast—still dressed in prison garb--insinuate themselves into the dramatis personae of The Tempest. Yes, this is a play-within–a-play, and for the next two hours this group of female prisoners will give the play a go.

Although this Tempest is rooted in a prison setting, it also has some terrific coup de theatres that are bound to tickle your fancy. The best scene by far is the betrothal masque that Prospero conjures up for Miranda and Ferdinand. Instead of the traditional pageant where several gods (think Ceres, Iris, and Juno) descend from the flies, performers enter with huge translucent balloons overhead, each with video projections of utopian landscapes and logos that everybody knows and lives by. Although I have seen masques that are more spectacular, this one has immediacy and rings true with our cultural milieu.

The performances match the conceit. Harriet Walter, doubling as Prospero and the inmate Hanna, is superb. Walter rightly portrays Prospero as part tyrannical patriarch, part penitent ruler, and altogether the doting father of Miranda, his raison d'etre. Walter's portrait of Hanna is right on the money too, a Buddha-like figure with acres of stoic reserve.

Another standout is Jade Anouka, as the airy sprite Ariel. Anouka does a rap version of her character's famous song "Where the bee sucks," giving it an urban hip-hop flavor. Anouka also peppers her performance with a break-dance routine that has real snap, crackle, and pop to it. Sophie Stanton, as Caliban, nails her part as the native savage and ne'er-do-well. Stanton looks and acts like a bag lady, banding up with the other two amoral characters Trinculo and Stefano, played by Karen Dunbar and Jackie Clune, respectively. Sheila Atim, as Ferdinand, and Leah Harvey, as Miranda, are charming as the callow young lovers. Harvey, by the bye, is the only female actor playing a woman, and brings a natural feistiness to the role. A shout out to the performers playing the prison guards too. They keep us aware of the double-focus of the play, interrupting the inmates now and then to remind them of prison protocol or to sound the earsplitting bell of the institution.

Bunny Christie's Spartan set, abetted by James Farncombe lighting, gives us a real picture of prison life. In fact, Christie's set is no more than a barren cell with a cot and recyclables strewn about in every which way. This Tempest, all in all, is no theatrical confection. But it is about the shifting realities of prison--and the nature of human life in general

One of the marks of a great production is that it makes you see a familiar text in a fresh light. Lloyd's gender-blind Tempest set in a prison does that and more. It invites you to watch women step into traditionally male roles with no apologies. What's more, it forces you to witness up-close how our justice system works—and how harsh it can be for women like Hanna.

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The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Cast: Jade Anouka (Ariel), Shiloh Coke (Sebastian), Jackie Clune (Stefano), Karen Dunbar (Trinculo), Zainab Hasan (Gonzalo), Sophie Stanton (Caliban), Carolina Valdés (Antonio), Sheila Atim (Ferdinand), Leah Harvey (Miranda), and Martina Laird (Alonso).
Sets: Bunny Christie
Costumes: Morag Pirrie
Sound: Peter Malkin
Lighting: James Farncombe
Movement Director: Ann Yee
Video Designer: Duncan McLean
Composer: Joan Armatrading
Stage Manager: Lloyd Thomas
St. Ann's Warehouse at 45 Water Street, Brooklyn From 1/13/17; opening 1/18/17; closing 2/19/17.
Running time: 1 hour: 45 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on performance of 1/13/17

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