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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the February 19, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `The Tempest’

We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little

life is rounded with sleep."

Some theater-going purists may blanch at the notion that McCarter

Theater’s current production of William Shakespeare’s "The Tempest"

features some trendy gender-bending in lead roles and an assortment

of dazzling special effects. But the production — starring Blair

Brown as Prospera, the magically miffed former Duchess of Milan —

is not a splashy updating of one of Shakespeare’s last works, but

a crafty, artfully executed rendition of an enduringly popular play.

Featuring a cast that delivers some bang-up performances, an assortment

of visually impressive design elements, and some snappy direction

by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann, "The Tempest" manages

to be both fun and respectful of the play’s rich tradition.

A dozen years after being deposed as Duchess of Milan, Prospera learns

that her enemies are sailing near her enchanted island. With the help

of her airy spirit, Ariel (Julyana Soelistyo), Prospera achieves some

measure of revenge by calling up a great tempest and shipwrecking

Alonsa, Queen of Naples (Caroline Stefanie Clay); a host of family

members and courtiers; and Prospera’s own traitorous brother Antonio

(John Feltch), bringing them all safely to shore in scattered groups

across the island. Drawn by Ariel’s magic, Alonsa’s handsome son Ferdinand

(Lorenzo Pisoni) meets Prospera’s nubile daughter Miranda (Rachel

Matthews Black) and they quickly fall in love. But before she will

allow them to marry, Prospera puts the young prince through his paces,

forcing him to prove his devotion by carrying unwieldy logs.

On another part of the island Alonsa; Sebastian, the queen’s brother

(Ezra Knight); Antonio; and a kindly lord named Gonzalo (Yusef Bulos)

wander about convinced that Prince Ferdinand is dead. Lulled by Ariel’s

magic, all fall asleep — except for Sebastian and Antonio, who

then take the opportunity to plot the murder of the queen. On the

other side of the island a court jester, Trinculo (Cameron Folmar),

and a drunken butler, Stephano (John Keating), meet Prospera’s monster-like

slave Caliban (Ian Kahn), who delighted with their "celestial

liquor" swears his devotion. Together they plot Prospera’s murder.

Both murders are foiled by the quick action of Ariel and the plotters’

bumbling greed.

Blair Brown has a powerful presence as Prospera. Shakespeare

gave her character a versatile personality, but it takes a talented

actor to pull it off. Sometimes obnoxiously brash and downright self-serving,

Prospera is not always likable. Brown manages to keep the audience

on her side though the simple art of empathy. Keeping her character

unpredictable, even in such a familiar play, is not always easy, but

Brown’s Prospera exhibits a coy current of understated wonder, allowing

shifts of emotion to flow seamlessly and believably, complementing

her rage with a softer, sometimes overprotective, love for her daughter.

It is further measure of her success that the part seems perfectly

melded to her gender and one forgets the alternative casting three

minutes into the play.

Julyana Soelistyo as Ariel the nymph-like spirit also does a nice

job in a difficult role. It would be easy for an actor to slip into

caricature, becoming Tinker-bell cute. But Soelistyo lends Ariel a

quiet and pleasing dignity that the audience can immediately buy into.

Likewise for Ian Hahn as Caliban, whose monster-like character manages

to be riveting and disgusting at the same time Cameron Folmar and

John Keating, both gifted comic actors, gave Trinculo and Stephano

a vaudevillian zaniness that elicited belly laughs from the opening

night audience.

Caroline Stefanie Clay — who plays the other sex-changed character

in the production, Queen Alonsa — is also quietly evocative of

rich emotions. Rachel Matthews Black and Lorenzo Pisoni, as the lovers

Miranda and Ferdinand, give their characters a contemporary appeal

familiar to parents of teenagers everywhere. Yusef Bulos as Gonzalo

manages to be loyal and wise without being annoying.

Emily Mann’s direction is bold, shaking the audience out of its slumber

by starting the play off with a raucous rock-video-like flair that

utilizes the stage, the aisles, and balcony of the theater. She keeps

things going at a nice pace throughout, flavoring the play’s angst

with some brassy bits of comedy that treads the line of decorum but

still manages to work. She also keeps the play’s magical elements

in line. Although some of the special effects — an oft repeated

swirl of a hand coupled with a tinkle of an offstage bell — may

sound reminiscent of the 1960s sitcom "Bewitched," they add

to the enchanted air of the play.

The set design by Richard Hoover is stylishly abstract, employing

muted colors and juxtaposed rectangles and circles. It is lovely,

despite the fact that the moon that slowly makes its way across the

back of the stage area throughout the course of the play tended to

sway a bit in the breeze. Jess Goldstein’s costume designs are pragmatically


"The Tempest" is fun theater. McCarter’s production of such

a high profile play is risky. If the production had any real flaws,

the choice to use alternative casting could easily have magnified

them into being a big distraction. But the fact that the production

seems less revolutionary and more pleasantly commonplace is perhaps

the best surprise of all.

— Jack Florek

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