Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
Generally considered to be the last play that Shakespeare wrote, "The Tempest" is neither comedy nor tragedy, romance nor history. It is a show of magic and love, revenge and forgiveness, natural and supernatural, coincidence and manipulation.
Prospero's brother Antonio has usurped him as the Duke of Milan, setting him and his little daughter Miranda out to sea. Twelve years later Prospero and the now teen-aged Miranda are living on a desert island where Prospero has learned enough magic to rule over the spirit Ariel and the deformed Caliban, son of the witch who once ruled the land. Fate brings a ship filled with all the people who wronged Prospero back in Italy, and he envokes a tempest to wreck the boat on the shores of the island. Here the play splits into three separate plot lines: the love story of Ferdinand, Prince of Naples, and Miranda; the comic antics of Stephano, the drunken butler, and Trinculo the jester as they plot with Caliban to kill Prospero and take over the island; and the court intrigues of the Queen of Naples, her brother Sebastian, and the usurping Duke Antonio, along with their faithful councellor Gonzala. Prospero's magic reunites everyone safe and sound for a happy ending as they all depart to take up "civilized life" once again.
Director Christine Adaire has set her "Tempest" on a south seas island, with Prospero dressed as a witch doctor living in a grass hut. Shakespeare probably was thinking of the adventures of ship's crew stranded on the island of Bermuda, in the New World, which happened close to the time he wrote "The Tempest".
This production is the culmination of work for the Summer Training Insititute, a graduate level program for actors who have participated in Shakespeare & Company's month-long intensive workshop in June. This means that Adaire had this group of 14 actors to work with - no more and no less. Her task was to find a work in the Shakespearean canon which would suit their talents and, more or less, their ages and sexes, which she could stage successfully outdoors. This business of taking your round pegs and searching for a play with enough matching round holes is a challenge many repertory companies face. Sometimes it works and some times it doesn't, and it if it fails it is usually more the fault of the person who selected the play than the actors performing in it.
But Adaire has found a good enough fit wth "The Tempest" that this production is neither great nor awful, but fun, funny, and a decent two hours spent at the theatre. Some of her actors are round pegs lodged happily in round holes, and the others have been pounded in so that they fit more or less, kinda sorta. Luke Stanhope is way too young to play prospero, but he gives a solid performance. Sarah Taylor and Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons are also too young, and the wrong sex to play Gonzalo and Alonzo, the King of Naples, but their roles have become Gonzala and Alonza, the Queen of Naples, and that's okay.
But when the pegs fit they fit beautifully. Shakespeare may have intended Trinculo to be played by a man, but after Meredith Kaunitz has you rolling in the aisles you will think the Bard very foolish indeed not to have written the part for a woman. Benjamin Lambert has created his very own Caliban, giving him a crablike gait on all fours and a halting speech pattern Shakespeare never envisioned, but he is every inch the "savage and deformed slave". Ferdinand is a thankless, smarmy role, to which Manu Narayan brings warmth and humility. He also wears a lion cloth with great aplomb.
One of Adaire's best inventions to help fit her cast to the play and vice versa is dividing the role of the spirit Ariel among three performers - Amy Hayes as the spirit of fire, Sheila Bandyopadhyay as the spirit of air, and Josef Pfitzer as the spirit of water. This works so very well, enabling Ariel and Prospero's magic arts to envelop and beseige the poor mortals that you wonder why no one thought of it before. Necessity is the mother of invention.
What makes the production less than perfect? Well, it is a "class project" and the actors were not handpicked for their roles. They all do well, but in many cases they are making do.
The costumes at Shakespeare & Company are always good looking and allow freedom of movement for the actors. This is true for everyone except poor Taylor, who is wedged into an unflattering and ungainly gown as Gonzala. When she appeared briefly as the goddess Juno at Ferdinand and Miranda's wedding masque, she looked so lovely it was hard to believe it was the same actress. Even larger women deserve a decent fiting gown if they are going to be shipwrecked on a south seas isle for any period of time.
The other thing that drove me nuts was that everyone pronounced Milan "MILL-un". If we are talking about Naples then we are talking about Italy and the city in Italy spelled Milan is pronounced "mih-LAHN". No doubt some Shakespearean scholat will come forth to explain to me why it is "MILL-un" in "The Tempest" and "mih-LAHN" in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona". Probably something to do with blank verse...
"The Tempest" runs through September 5 on the outdoor Oxford Court Theatre stage on the grounds of Shakespeare and Company's home at The Mount, 2 Plunkett Street, in Lenox. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999