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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’
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
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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