The Tempest, STC’s free for all (review)

For the past 25 years, Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) has memorably gifted our community by remounting one of its recent favorite productions in free performances.  These used to be performed at Carter Baron that offered a sylvan setting, opportunities for family pre-show picnics on the grass, and the happenstance adventures of actors sharing the staging with bugs, bats, and birds’ twilight twitters. I’ll admit I still miss the informal, delicious chaos of it all, but indoors on the Sydney Harman stage, Ethan McSweeny has given us one of the loveliest and most dreamlike of Free For All evenings in this, one of Shakespeare’s late plays.

Over the years, McSweeny has directed some of the visually strongest and most emotionally memorable STC productions (Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Major Barbara, and The Persians.) In this reprise of the 2014 production of The Tempest, he doesn’t pound the work into a relevant update, but rather he faithfully honors Shakespeare’s original elements of courtly masques, neoclassical insistence on unity, and a tone of celebratory revelry that were so highly prized in the London of 1610-1611.

Choric processions are rendered beautifully with the help of choreographer Matthew Gardiner and a design nod to the “brave new world” of the recently discovered Americas by the fantastic ornithological headdresses with their exotic plumage. A mythical figure, dressed to the nines in 17th century’s latest fashion, looks down from a high balcony and sings in flutelike Baroque style to bless conjugal harmony.

Avery Glymph as Ferdinand, Rachel Mewbron as Miranda and the Ensemble of the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Avery Glymph as Ferdinand, Rachel Mewbron as Miranda and the Ensemble of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2014 production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Photo: Scott Suchman)

There are theatrical effects that work quite magically.  Puppets, designed by James Ortiz, feature enormous moon faces, giant hands controlled by sticks, and reams of fabric that float through the air and caress and enfold the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand, blessing the entire proceedings.  Ariel, played by the radiant Sara Topham, spends most of the evening flying high above the stage or swooping down to hover horizontally above the other characters. With her spiked golden halo of hair, beautifully expressive hands, and gamine body, Topham is the very essence of the light-filled sprite Ariel.

We talk with the designers of STC’s The Tempest

Central to the enjoyment of this bittersweet play is the figure of Prospero delivering what is believed to be Shakespeare’s own farewell address to the world.  This rightful Duke of Milan, deposed and stranded on an island, Prospero has perfected his sorcerer’s powers. By whipping up a storm, he “conjures” to him a ship carrying his usurping brother Antonio and his ally King Alonso of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and a couple of fools. The shipwrecked crew learns many lessons on this magical island, and justice and harmony are finally restored with Prospero regaining his rightful position and the announcement of the wedding of his daughter Miranda to Ferdinand. In the end, Prospero must say goodbye to his island and his faithful companion Ariel. With the breaking of his staff and freeing Ariel, the circle is completed, and his work – Shakespeare’s work – is done. 

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tempest FFA show small
The Tempest
4stars
closes August 28, 2016
Details and tickets
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There is much to recommend the production, but there were also challenges for me.  The eponymous tempest at the beginning always threatens to drown out the actors. The commedia del’arte clowns Trinculo and Stefano can sometimes steal the show with their antics, but here seemed leaden they were so overplayed.  Maybe the actors felt the need to connect to the more general STC summer audience by laying it on thick. (I remember them in 2014 being funnier.) But do we really need to play with broad American accents mincing every queer joke? It’s all so stale.  In general the first half of the play seemed to get soupy.

McSweeny has created something of a designer dream team, and the single set by Lee Savage features a hillock of white sand that is backlit by a whitish yellow expanse of sky with a pale globe of a sun coming up on the horizon lit by Christopher Akerlind.  The only thing that breaks the horizon is a capsized wreck of a boat upended and half buried in the sand and a few feet away a lone mast impales the sky.  The set is lovely and so elegantly simple and yet it adds to the effect of putting the audience into an hypnotic daze.

During the second half of the show, the play seemed to snap back into focus.  Partly it was because Patrick Page as Prospero gets to wrestle back his storyline.   The whole stage becomes a hushed place for us to hear the bard’s voice speedwell to us across the ages. It was lovely to hear these able actors communicate Shakespeare’s language with such thoughtfulness and music.  Page seems born to play the world of a master at his craft and guides us through not only the reckoning of Prospero but a company of actors as if showing them “how it’s all done” – the magic of Shakespeare – and with incomparable ease and grace.

Clifton Duncan reprises his role in the 2014 production as Caliban as does Rachel Mewbron as Miranda.  Caliban is not an easy role to accept in today’s racially sensitive world, but the actor manages to bring us sharply into the heartbreaking reality of a colonized and enslaved character without toppling the play’s original context. His entrance enchained to a rock and dragging the thing across the sands made me feel sick for his plight.  He makes horrifying how he is induced to suck down liquor and the subsequent poisoning of body and spirit.  He allows his Caliban to have moments of clowning foolishness but also conveys great righteous dignity.

Mewbron as Miranda conveys well the wonder of a girl raised without humankind except for her father , and then introduced to a riches of men. It’s fun to watch her guilelessness, her quickness of mind, and her hunger to learn so much on the fly. She moves between comedy and romance with finesse.  I dearly love the work of ensemble and no one does Shakespearean ensemble better than Edward Gero and Ted van Griethuysen. These two affiliated artists as Alonso and Gonzalo always create a theatrical reality as if they breathe in iambic pentameter, which indeed they do here. Sadly, some of the other performances look like they had been uncomfortably transported from the naturalism of television’s “House of Cards.” 

Each of the actors’ special relationship with the physicality of sand reminds me of how McSweeny so artfully used the element of sand in The Persians. Miranda cavorts in it playfully then rolls and caresses it.  Ferdinand (an engaging Avery Glymph) makes “snow angels” as he finds physical and emotional freedom.  Caliban flicks, kicks, and grounds down into it as he dances island-style. The courtiers have to slog through it, exhausted in their efforts and burdened by layers of pantaloons. Prospero uses it as part of his magical arsenal, but when he releases it, we understand his hands also represent an hourglass and his awareness of an ending.

The play at its best transports us. At those moments, we are indeed the stuff that dreams are made of. What a swell way to spend the dog days of summer by escaping into such an evening of enchantment?

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The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Featuring Patrick Page, Rachel Mewbron, Sara Topham, Clifton Duncan, Edward Gero, Avery Glymph, David Bishins, Gregory Linington, Ted van Griethuysen, Avery Clark, Nancy Anderson, Sean Fri, Gabriel Horning, Liam Craig and Dave Quay. Scenic design: Lee Savage. Costume design: Jennifer Moeller. Lighting design: Christopher Akerlind. Sound design: Nevin Steinberg. Composer: Jenny Giering. Choreography: Matthew Gardiner. Flight director: Stu Cox. Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.

Scenes from the 2014 production of The Tempest

Susan Galbraith About Susan Galbraith

Susan Galbraith received a BA in English and Drama from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi beta kappa. Settling in Minneapolis for a time, she earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota, founded a theatre company, Performers Ensemble, and also collaborated with Prince on writing songs and the first draft of Purple Rain. Susan was part of the acting company at Boston Shakespeare Company under Peter Sellars. Since 1991, she has made D.C. her home where she has enjoyed the opportunity to write plays, direct, act, and produce. She helped co-found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and collaborated on original works across disciplines, styles, and cultural expressions of music-theatre. For the Alliance, Susan adapted and directed Kafka's Metamorphosis and is currently collaborating with composer Maurice Saylor on adapting Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) as a retro-futuristic musical.This Fall she directs an "apartment performance" of Vaclav Havel's Protest which will perform in D.C. and NYC.

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