Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Tempest

Farce over substance: ‘THE TEMPEST’ at Great Lakes Theater Festival

“We are such stuff as dreams are made of.”

“THE TEMPEST,’ now being staged at Great Lakes Theatre Festival, is sometimes billed as Shakespeare’s last play. In fact, ‘HENRY VII’ and ‘TWO NOBLE KINSMEN’ were written later. Another misconception about the play is that it is a comedy. Modern editors have relabelled it as either a romance or a fantasy. To add to the interesting background of the script, when it was written it was basically ignored as a minor work. Today, however, critics and scholars consider it to be one of the Bard’s greatest works.

In contrast to many of Shakespeare’s plays, which make for excellent reading, ‘THE TEMPEST’ requires staging to develop its full effect. It is inherently theatrical since it contains invisible beings that the audience can see but the characters cannot and lends itself to farcical interludes that can’t be created on the page. It is multi-sensory theatre which includes storms, music, and sounds which are required to create its imagery.

Shakespeare, in his major plays, often asked, “What is a human being?” This is the theme of ‘THE TEMPEST.’

The play begins with a tempestuous storm at sea. Twelve years previously Prospero, the Duke of Milan, was usurped by his brother Antonio with the support of Alonso, King of Naples, and the king’s brother, Sebastian. But for the help of Alonso’s advisor, Gonzalo, he would have been killed with his only daughter Miranda. Gonzalo furnished them with the means to survive, including Prospero’s precious books, and cast them into the sea. They eventually landed on a remote island, once ruled by the witch Sycorax, but now inhabited by her only son, the malformed Caliban.

Upon his arrival Prospero released Ariel, a powerful spirit who had been enslaved by Sycorax. It is through the help of the “invisible” Ariel that Prospero, aware that a passing ship contains his brother and the co-conspirators, causes a storm and shipwrecks the vessel. As the play unfolds, love, plotting, drunkenness, a test of faith, new awarnesses and physical and psychological discovery take place. With a good production, it is Shakespeare at his finest.

Any director of ‘THE TEMPEST’ must make several decisions: How far is s/he going to go to take the fantasy? Is farce or comedy going to reign? Andrew May, directing his first play for GLFT, has decided to let loose all the effects, play for laughs, thus overshadowing the text.

As for the cast, Sara Bruner is delightful as Ariel, the airy Spirit. She moves well and develops a consistent character. Handsome David Gregory is on target as the naive love-controlled Ferdinand.

On the other hand, Aled Davies disappoints as Prospero. He displays two moods...quiet or yelling. He doesn’t build a compelling character. When we hear Prospero recite the epilogue, after laying down his wand, we should feel that all in the world is well. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

David Anthony Smith (Sebastian) yells almost every line. Dougfred Miller (Antonio) is often difficult to hear as he doesn’t project. Though they delighted the audience with their overdone actions, Jeffrey Hawkins and Lynn Robert Berg, are over the top as two drunken shipmates, substituting slapstick for concept. Pretty Laura Welsh screeches her way through the role of Miranda, daughter to Prospero.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you like farce carried to its max, startling special effects, and stress on visual effects over substance then you’ll like this production of ‘THE TEMPEST.’ It’s not a bad production, just one with a debatable interpretation and some questionable acting.