11/12/2022 THE TEMPEST New American Shakespeare Tavern
BACK TO THE ISLAND
For the bajillionth time in (almost as many) years, I find myself at a production of The Tempest, and writing about it. I also find myself confirming that it is more than likely my favorite Shakespeare play. It was the first that I read "for fun" (that is, outside of a classroom assignment), and I've seen more than a dozen different productions and film adaptations, including one in Stratford-upon-Avon, England (truly awful), and one in Stratford, Canada (truly wonderful). I've always enjoyed its combination of fantasy and Jacobean vengeance, its mixture of primal innocence (Miranda) and calculated evil (Antonio and Sebastian), its over-the-top theatricality and understated subtexts and its emotional connections. But what really sells this piece for me is its resolution, its choice of forgiveness over revenge, its assurance that mistakes can be acknowledged and forgiven, and its humanist celebration of the mundane over the phantasmagoric. I declare this bias now so you know my standards for this play (productions of which I always anticipate with the greatest of excitement) may be higher than yours, and my expectations stricter.
This is the fourth time I've seen Tempest at the Shakespeare Tavern (the first since 2013), and like the others, it is skillful and moving with some very good ideas and concepts, and, more to the point, has decidedly different and surprising elements. Here, more than with any other Tavern production, although the script may be the same, the experience is not. Experience lets these superb Shakespeareans find new aspects, new ideas, new elements to keep the story alive, the production engaging, even for those of us who have seen it so often we can quote the lines with the cast.
Here, director Jaclyn Hofmann Faircloth puts her personal stamp on the story, letting Tavern Artistic Director Jeff Watkins shine as Prospero, keeping newcomers’ mushmouth to a minimum (I noticed NONE), and giving the comic subplot free rein. She and actor Amanda Lindsey McDonald give us an erotically ethereal Arial who is not above an occasional outburst of petulance. She adds a magical trio of “shapes” who bring the island’s wonderment to hallucinatory reality. I loved the look and sound of this production, and, although my OCD streak may quibble with some of the cuts bringing the show in at a brisk 60 minutes per act, the result is a true delight.
Once again, the play starts with a theatrical flourish, a whiz-bang storm-at-sea in which, once again, I couldn't tell if the tempestuous sounds were mechanical "live" gimmicks, pre-recorded enhancements, or a combination of the two. Movements were tightly choreographed, so that wave-driven "lurches" were in the same direction at the same time. And, walking calmly through all, unaffected by the wind and rocking deck, a dreamlike Ariel (and her minions) choreograph the illusory destruction of the ship.
Once the storm is over and we go to the island, Mr. Watkins as Prospero gives us the story, and centers the play with a dispassion that lessens as the swirling emotions of those around him calm into normality. Jasmine Renee Ellis as Miranda positively drips with innocence and life, wildly embracing all the new joys and sorrows that life casts her way, keeping a Brave New Embrace for each new experience. .
Unlike the 2009 and 2013 productions, the visitors are far more than “by-the-numbers.”. Mary Ruth Ralston and Barry Westmoreland have a decidedly sinister edge as the conspiratorial Antonio and Sebastian, and David Rucker’s Alonso is all noble grief and quiet suffering. Al Stilo is (as expected) marvelous as the garrulous and honest Gonzalo, and young Daryel T Monson gives us a Ferdinand every bot as innocent and life-embracing as Ms. Ellis’s Miranda.
As mentioned above, the comic trio of Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano (Justin Walker, O’Neil Delapenha, and Cory Phelps) milk their story for all the laughs possible, and then some. These three play off each other like seasoned vaudeville troupers. Mr. Walker gives his voice a decidedly beastly rasp and looks every inch the monstrous Caliban I’ve come to expect. These three were the highlight of the show.
To conclude, I can’t praise Ms. McDonald’s Ariel enough in this. She convincingly made me believe she is other than human, trapped by the human world and her human savior. I have seen Ariels in thrall to Prospero, in love with him, resentful of him, and one who even spat in his face at the end. But here, all those disparate Ariels combine in one seemingly whole creature. It is a breathtaking performance that should not be missed. It is also a marked contrast to her performance as Lady Macbeth last month and makes me truly excited to see what she has in store for us in her next role. She is an artist of obvious range and skill and is rapidly becoming the highlight of each and every Tavern production she graces.
Sometimes the old world can propel a story as eloquently as a brave new one. As they have before, and probably will again, the Tavern’s ensemble tells this oft-told story well, keeping it alive in my affections. To paraphrase Prospero’s oft-quoted epilogue, this production pierces the heart so that it assaults mercy itself, and frees all faults. As I from bad writing would pardoned be, let your indulgence set this Tempest free!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #ShakespeareTavern #Tempest)