Shakespeare’s brave new world – a desolate island miles aways from Europe – is the fantastical setting where The Tempest offers up a blend of danger, romance, intrigue, family strife and, ultimately, joy. All these qualities are handled with panache and delicious theatrical magic by WSC Avant Bard for their closing production of their 28th season.
For nearly three decades Avant Bard has made theatre “on the edge,” as they put it in their press materials. I would add that this company is also brilliant at stripping a Shakespeare piece of pretension, offering fresh takes on King Lear, last season, for example. Artistic and executive director Tom Prewitt’s newly minted Tempest ends this season in grand style, too.
Do you have a friend or spouse or co-worker who complains “Oh, God, Shakespeare is so [insert disparaging remark here]!” Take my advice and coax them along to Gunston II for what will prove to be a whimsical two hours that breeze along and makes this complex play clear and engaging from prologue to epilogue. Along the way, the comic play – technically a romance from the Bard’s latter works – offers plenty of laughs as well as strong relationships; and in Prewitt’s production, a smooth and creative staging that is sure to enchant even the biggest Shakespeare curmudgeon.
As a refresher, The Tempest follows a group of nobles from sunny Italy who run into a sudden and eventful storm at sea, scuttling their ship, and forcing the passengers and crew to abandon ship just off the coast of the New World. Meanwhile, on a secluded island lives Prospero and his daughter Miranda, stranded many years before. Prospero and Miranda are originally from – you guessed it! – the same area as the doomed ship, Milan and Naples, Italy. Coincidence? Not on your bamboo bippy. The torrential ocean tempest was conjured up by Prospero, having had time to practice all sort of sorcery while stuck on an island for a decade or so. As the Duke of Milan back in the day, he was usurped by his sister and her crony, and banished from Italy on a rickety ship that landed in the New World.
The rest of the two hours traffic of The Tempest will take care of itself, as Prospero’s plot to right the wrongs done to him while helping Miranda find a fitting husband unfurl clearly in this first class production.
Prewitt and his designers have transformed the intimate Theatre II into a tabula rasa, a clever mix of rough-hewn found objects, nautical elements, and rustic charm. Designer Greg Stevens is credited with the scenic and props design – his work is impeccably unique here – a feast for the eyes and the imminently practical at the same time. Steven is also credited with the costume design, mingling mid twentieth century wardrobe pieces with more elaborate clothing for the island dwellers. The sprite Ariel – a role divided among three performers – appears to have escaped from a mid-1980s music video by Madonna or Cyndi Lauper; the island’s hermit and sea monster Caliban’s look reminded me of a classic pirate. The varied looks and juxtaposed period styles fits perfectly within Prewitt’s playful and illuminating production.
Another creative design element of The Tempest is the wall to wall soundscape, provided by composer Andrew Bellware and audio coordinator Domenic Creswa. The sounds of island beasts, exotic fowl, and other nature sounds are seamlessly mixed with music that evokes mystery and a haunted quality that emanates, seemingly from Prospero’s artful magic.
Leading the cast with authority and a thoroughly idiosyncratic performance is Avant Bard’s former artistic director and veteran actor Christopher Henley as Prospero. Henley balances Prospero’s fine line of genius and madman, gentle father and bitter sibling, still stung by the betrayal a dozen years ago that deposited her and his daughter on the deserted island with only the bare necessities and Prospero’s volumes of magic, his “art.”
Henley turns in a mercurial performance that also touches the heart – as the devoted, single parent to his daughter Miranda, grown into a lovely, curious young lady who has only the faintest memories of Milan and what brought her tiny family to the new world. Henley’s approach to Prospero works to display the deposed duke’s calculating nature, wounded psyche, his desire to mend old wounds, and see his daughter happy.
closes July 1, 2018
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As Miranda, Allyson Boate provides a simple, direct, and wholly charming performance as the burgeoning young lady who has only seen her father and Caliban since her youngest days. Boate brings out all of Miranda’s wide-eyed and playful qualities with supreme clarity. When she first spies the handsome and lost Ferdinand – Miles Folley – Boate’s look is priceless. Folley’s Ferdinand is not only one of the stranded ship’s passengers, he is a prince of Naples, the son of the King, also among those presumed lost in the shipwreck.
As the King of Naples, Alonso, Avant Bard has another familiar face to bring life to the duplicitous royal, Frank Britton. Britton handles his role with his usual professionalism and authority. Joining Britton, as the benevolent and wise Gonzalo is Brian Crane.
As the co-conspirators Antonia and Sebastia, Cam Magee and Alyssa Sanders, respectively, make an impression. It should also be noted that Antonia and Sebastia are usually Antonio and Sebastian – male roles that here become female characters, losing none of their potency as antagonists. Magee and Sanders also get to take comic turns, going from villains to vaudevillians as the duo Stephano and Trinculo. (As the comic characters, the two actresses play men. I promise, it works.) Stephano and Trinculo spend most of their time with the rough and tumble Caliban, engaging in some wonderful physical comedy. Caliban is portrayed with childlike glee and an edge of brutishness by the flexible and expressive Justin J. Bell. Bell’s scenes with both Sanders, Magee, and Henley’s Prospero are some of the best in an already strong production.
As mentioned previously, Prospero’s helpful and whimsical sprite Ariel is shared by three performers, a master stroke of casting on Tom Prewitt’s part. The triple casting – Reginald Richard, Camille Pivetta, and Emily H. Gibson – contributes to the theatrical magic and the three lithe and energetic individuals work together to enact a cohesive, single character that bonds with Henley’s Prospero in a way I have rarely seen in productions of The Tempest.
Last season, Avant Bard’s King Lear brought out the poetry from a descent into loneliness and madness; their production of The Tempest takes a lighter approach, highlighting the joy – with just a hint of darkness – in a story of patience, magic, and family redemption.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare . Directed by Tom Prewitt . Featuring Christopher Henley, Allyson Boate, Miles Folle, Frank Britton Cam Magee, Alyssa Sanders, Brian Crane, Justin J. Bell, Emily H. Gilson, Camille Pivetta, and Reginald Richard . Assistant Director and Choreography by Sandra L. Holloway . Set, costume and props design by Greg Stevens . Lighting Design by Jos. B. Musumeci, Jr. . Composer: Andrew Bellware
Audio Coordinator: Domenic Creswa . Technical Director: Ralph Derbyshire . Production Stage Manager: Laura Schlachtmeyer . Produced by WSC Avant Bard . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.
[Editor’s note: Christopher Henley writes for DC Theatre Scene. That did not impact this review.]