REVIEW: “The Tempest” at Shakespeare & Company

by Roseann Cane

Using the Company’s new outdoor Roman Garden Theatre, which is subjected to the vagaries of weather, Director Allyn Burrows has cleverly chosen to place The Tempest on an island off Nova Scotia in the 1890s. During that time, Nova Scotia gained international recognition as a leader in ship building, and, as in the rest of the Western world, saw the economic turmoil as well as the constant invention that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.

“Envy, betrayal, and exile are transformed into self-exploration, forgiveness, and wonder in this towering classic,” writes Burrows. “When told simply and eloquently by nine actors in the intimate outdoor setting at sunset, this story can be strikingly powerful.” While it’s tempting to dismiss the proud director’s superlative-laden declaration as hyperbole, don’t. This production of The Tempest is a knockout.

Prospero (Nigel Gore), the ousted Duke of Milan, now a sorcerer, lives on a remote island with his daughter Miranda (Ella Loudon), who has been on the island so long that she has never seen another man. Prospero creates a storm that appears to shipwreck a vessel, forcing its inhabitants to land on the island. Among the inhabitants are Prospero’s brother, Antonio (Mark Zeisler), who had usurped Prospero’s position in Milan; Antonio’s conspirator, King Alonso of Naples (Josh Aaron McCabe); Alonso’s brother, Sebastian (Thomas Brazzle); Alonso’s son, Ferdinand (Deaon Griffin-Pressley); Trinculo (Bella Merlin), a jester on the ship; and Trinculo’s drinking buddy, Stephano (Josh Aaron McCabe).

Ariel (Tamara Hickey), a sprite, has been Prospero’s servant ever since Prospero freed him from a tree where he had been trapped by an evil witch named Sycorax, who died before freeing Ariel. Also inhabiting the island is the monstrous Caliban (Jason Asprey), the son of Sycorax who, though adopted and raised by Prospero, has grown resentful of Prospero and Miranda. Eventually the drunkards Trinculo and Stephano discover Caliban and share their alcohol with him, which causes him to believe Stephano to be even more powerful than Prospero.

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Aided by Ariel and Prospero’s spells, Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love; Ferdinand is reunited with his father, Alonso, after each had believed the other to have died in the shipwreck; Prospero forgives Antonio and Alonso, then frees Ariel and pardons Caliban. Renouncing magic, Prospero joins Ferdinand and Miranda to return to Naples and reclaim his dukedom.

Costume designer Govane Lohbaur has ingeniously dressed the cast in an array of stunning garments, capturing at once the Victorian Nova Scotia setting and the enchantment of the play. I was amused and delighted by Tamara Hickey’s Ariel. In a conspiratorial wink at Ariel’s androgyny, Hickey, in a gold bodysuit and gauzy overgarments, is a dead ringer for David Bowie. Hickey’s performance was sublime, with her arresting voice and effortless tree-climbing, she seemed weightless, diaphanous, otherworldly, neither human nor beast.

Nigel Gore’s Prospero, earthy and all too human, manages to embody the bereft sorcerer who deeply wants to return to humanity. His affection for his daughter, Miranda, is palpable. And Ella Loudon is charismatic and beautiful as well as Amazonian and innocent–perfectly cast, in my opinion. Initially, Deaon Griffin-Pressley’s Ferdinand was a bit low-key for my liking, but as the play progressed, and especially as we watch him fall in love with Miranda, his performance took on more dimension and depth.

As Caliban, Jason Asprey seemed to bellow monotonously at first, making it difficult to grasp what he was saying. However, by the time he fell in with his drunken companions, his performance took on some fine shading, and his Caliban became genuinely captivating. I also loved the look Lohbaur created for him, which made him a man-beast, complete with claws. (Black bears are plentiful in Nova Scotia.)

Bella Merlin was a delightfully silly Trinculo. She has a wonderful comic scene with Asprey, where their bodies become oddly entangled under a blanket; both actors are remarkably limber, and they had the audience in stitches. With Josh Aaron McCabe’s Stephano, the trio was memorably funny, providing an engaging contrast to the darker themes of the play.

Set designer Jim Youngerman came up with some brilliant ideas to suit the round and rocky stage, including “flying” props and clothing on pulleys. Sound designer/composer Arshan Gailus enhanced the play immeasurably, with haunting music and a cappella singing, and, most notably, ambient sounds that, in a neat bit of sorcery, accompanied the birds that flew over the Roman Garden Theatre. Or maybe the birds accompanied the music? Who can tell?

The Shakespeare & Company production of The Tempest by William Shakespeare, directed by Allyn Burrows, runs August 10-September 3, 2017, in the Roman Garden Theatre on the Shakespeare & Company campus in Lenox, MA. Set deign by Jim Youngerman, costume design by Govane Lohbauer, Sound designer/composer Arshan Gailus, Stage Manager Diane Healy. CAST: Nigel Gore as Prospero, Ella Loudon as Miranda, Jason Asprey as Caliban, Thomas Brazzle as Sebastian, Deaon Griffin-Pressley as Ferdinand, Tamara Hickey as Ariel, Josh Aaron McCabe as Alonso and Stephano, Bella Merlin as Trinculo, Mark Zeisler as Antonio.

The Tempest will be performed in-the-round at dusk, tickets are available online at shakespeare.org, or by calling Shakespeare & Company’s box office at (413) 637-3353. The Roman Garden Theatre is a new outdoor venue and is wheelchair accessible. Shakespeare & Company is located at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, Massachusetts. In case of rain, the show will be performed in the tented Rose Footprint Theatre. This production is generously sponsored by The Dr. Gerald and Roberta Friedman Foundation.

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