Reviewed by Tony Farrell
If only every dad could be so lucky. You wear your magic cloak, you wield your magic staff, and everyone in the neighborhood is bent to your wild-eyed will. The mail is never late, and the kids stay off your lawn. Best of all, your cosmic powers keep that teenage hunk who wants to date your daughter cooling his heels out at the end of the driveway.
It’s the supreme paternal dream, and of course it’s nothing new. But such is the special fortune of Prospero, the proud, conflicted father at the center of Richmond Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the Acts of Faith Festival production now playing at the McVey Theatre on the campus of St. Catherine’s School.
In this sleek and fast-moving production of Shakespeare’s comedy-romance—one of the Bard’s last plays—we return again to the forgotten isle where Prospero holds supreme magical influence over wind, weather and the island’s inhabitants.
But Prospero’s power is hard earned and comes with a ragged edge. To steal the position of Duke of Milan for himself, his brother Antonio conspired to maroon him there twelve years earlier. Ever since, Prospero has used his powers to protect and nurture his now-teenage daughter, Miranda. But he has also become the picture of the purpose-driven life as he dreams of his chance to get revenge.
And so The Tempest begins, as Prospero conjures a massive storm to draw a passing ship carrying Antonio and other Italian nobles onto the island’s reefs. The story, which Shakespeare based on the fate of the Sea Venture, a Jamestown supply ship scuttled on the shores of Bermuda in 1609, kicks off with the crash landing, a setup as tantalizing here as it has been through all of the play’s modern-day direct descendants, from the seminal 1956 science-fiction film Forbidden Planet all the way up to television’s Lost.
“The Tempest” is famous for pioneering what filmmakers like to call the “cold opening”: an immediate plunge into the red-alert desperation of men and women abandoning ship. But director James Alexander Bond has updated the play’s setting to Britain’s Edwardian era, dispensing with the Elizabethan shipwreck in favor of an airship crash only hinted at in the play’s first scene.
I confess I missed the Sturm und Drang of the play’s classic beginning, but Bond chooses to use the backdrop of an arrogant, increasingly mechanized early twentieth-century to emphasize how civilization can learn a thing or two from the mystical, spiritual forces alive in nature.
Still, you would do well to read The Tempest plot synopsis in the playbill before the show begins. No, this isn’t an episode of Survivor: Bermuda, but as the wreck’s dazed passengers wander the island, conspire against each other, and bump up against heathens, fairies and sprites, the story’s overlapping episodes “strengthen from strange to stranger,” as Alonzo, the King of Milan, says.
And it does take a while to get into the groove of the Bard’s famously descriptive language and syntax. Bill Shakespeare was never one to sum up a scene with one quick thought when there were ten poetry-laden sentences there for the taking. Trust me when I say: You do not want to get cornered by this guy at a cocktail party. Ask him what time it is, and he’ll probably tell you how to build a cuckoo clock.
But that was a function of his era, of course, when a stage story couldn’t expect help from special effects, pumping soundtracks or fast-cut editing to add excitement or prick the emotions. (To introduce younger audiences to the magic and wonder of Shakespeare’s plays, Richmond Shakespeare will offer a shorter, more streamlined version of The Tempest in a one-time family matinee Saturday, March 16, at 3 o’clock.)
Lucky for us, this production of The Tempest has a cast that knows how to keep the mood buoyant and put the juice in every line. John Mincks as Ariel, Prospero’s chief agent of magical doings, brings a rubbery, outsized physical energy to the story from the play’s first scene. Jeremy Gershman as Caliban, the island native cowed and controlled by Prospero, is the perfect mix of menace and bumbling ineptitude—the best kind of beast you can find.
Shakespeare plays are also known for dynamic duos that can always be counted on to fill out the plot and gum up the works. Wreck survivors Trinculo and Stephano (James Murphy and David Janosik) bring the show’s biggest laughs as they drunkenly barge through the island’s carefully tended magical undergrowth. Prospero’s clueless brother Antonio (Axle Burtness) and sidekick Sebastian (Thomas Bell) also have their comic timing down to the tick. And their hilarious flyers’ outfits—goggles, white scarf and flyer’s cap for Antonio and matching white hat and duster for Sebastian—were made completely from scratch by Ann Hoskins and Rebecca Cairns.
“The Tempest” has never required extravagant set design, and you won’t find it here at the McVey Theatre, that grand dame of aging, West End performance space. But lighting designer B. J. Wilkinson knows how to use shifting light patterns and colors to bring out fresh details in the stage scenery as each scene begins. As brought to life here, the play also relies on sound effects only lightly—a solo piano, tinkling bells, strums on a ukulele—to keep the performances intimate and direct.
The players also perform without microphones, which helps keep the play at its most personal and meditative (the producers have wisely extended the McVey stage ten feet forward to bring the actors closer to their audience). That intimacy pays off especially well for the scenes between Miranda and Ferdinand, the young lovers whose path to one another serves as the spine of the “The Tempest.” Isabelle Andrews and Daniel Kunkel, both only 15 years old, bring diction, rhythm and wisdom well beyond their years to their respective roles, and I found myself wishing Shakespeare’s script could have kept them on stage much longer.
But it is Prospero, as played with just the right combination of Y-chromosome protectiveness and Type-A derangement by Charley Raintree, who holds sway over every character’s destiny, including his own. From the moment he summons wild magic to freeze Ferdinand in his tracks and prevent him from courting Miranda, all the way to the play’s final scenes, when he blesses his daughter’s romance, forgives his brother, and casts away his anger, resentment and magical powers, Prospero reminds us that a father’s mind is a tempest all its own.
For every dad wishes to keep his child safe from harm, set a good example, and try not to feel ashamed when he falls short. The day will come, too, when he knows he will have to send his girl out into the world and move on with his own life. And no magic staff or mystical manipulation can prevent that day from coming. Four hundred years after a ship foundered on faraway reefs, “The Tempest” still blows that rueful truth.
Richmond Shakespeare’s The Tempest is showing at McVey Theatre at St. Catherine’s School through March 30. Call 800-838-3006 for tickets.
Special children’s adaptation of The Tempest is slated for Saturday, March 16 at three o’clock. This full-cast, full-costume family matinee is an original language performance of the play, abridged to run approximately 90 minutes with one intermission. The ticket prices are lower, and the show is suitable for children of all ages, so families are encouraged to bring even their littlest ones. Scenes are highlighted with more action and comedy, to ensure that the show will be fast-paced but understandable and engaging for children. There’s a playground right outside the theatre doors, so children can play during intermission and get ready for the second act. Call 800-838-3006 for tickets.