Director Geoffrey Kent has no one to blame but himself for offering a Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest that doesn’t exactly take the audience by storm.
The expectations for Kent to unleash a gale-force Tempest came from his masterful handling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year. The entire festival is being scrutinized by University of Colorado academics, and Kent’s raucous and creative Dream gave new and loyal fans alike renewed hope and a hearty appetite for some heftier fare this year.
The Tempest has the makings of a perfect storm: solid talent, momentum, a complex and rewarding story that’s easy to follow, a willing audience. But Saturday’s patrons seemed to shuffle away wondering how all the right ingredients resulted in something less than a extraordinary night. For the Shakespeare aficionado, it was a perplexing production. For the casual patron, it delivered furrowed brows.
The Tempest has long been an audience favorite, probably because the theme of vengeance versus justice and the concept of forgiveness rings loudly in everyone’s life. The story follows the traumas of Prospero, a once-prominent Italian Duke of Milan who is politically undone by his unscrupulous brother, Antonio. Prospero and his young daughter are forced to flee Naples and end up shipwrecked on a remote island inhabited only by Caliban, a dour man-creature, and Ariel, an impish spirit. Prospero himself is a sorcerer, who uses his magic to force these two to do his bidding. As the play opens, his bidding is to create a raging storm, forcing an entourage to abandon their passing ship as they fear it’s about to sink. Prospero knows the ship’s passengers include the King of Naples, his vile brother, and other court officials, returning from a wedding in Tunisia. Prospero’s plan is to enact his revenge, which he sees as justice for his exile.
It’s right at the beginning that the show hits a wave. Prospero, played by Peter Simon Hilton, explains his sad history and his plot to make right all the wrongs done to him and his daughter, Miranda, now a young woman, played by Kyra Lindsey.
Staff held high over his head with his Jesus haircut and Puerto Vallarta tunic, Prospero suddenly became Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments. The image was so distracting, he couldn’t shake it through most of the rest of the performance. But like a ship in a gale, Hilton and Kent seemed to right the course, allowing Prospero to seethe over his misfortune and wallow in his own darkness. Prospero essentially enslaves and doubletalks the spirit Ariel and Caliban in his plan to get even.
But just as the audience acclimates, Ariel climbs onto two aerial silks for a series of acrobatics while playing her part of the petulant and sometimes perturbed spirit. It was an admirable and provocative idea realized by Vanessa Morosco. It gave Aerial the height and flight she needed, but each time her feet tentatively searched for purchase in the drapes under the glaring stage lights, her acrobatics stole her lines. Just as you began to hope she’d stop to stem worries about her safety, she’d flip her feet and toss a funny line and pull it all together. Other times, she would spin the wrong way or tentatively struggle to push off walls. Even though Morosco was enthralling as Ariel, these distractions weren’t easy to overlook.
Neither was Miranda when she pranced onstage in her Blue Lagoon hair and ensemble. It was here that the storm seemed to overtake the cast. The tempo of the play, which is rapid-fire, kept the players from developing their characters. Miranda came off like Debbie Reynolds at first. But like so much of the show, she righted the part to give the island daughter an impertinent innocence.
As the rest of the cast came ashore from the shipwreck to get their comeuppance, the show rocked back and forth from scenes as trivial as an episode of Gilligan’s Island to passionate portrayals of loneliness, betrayal, fairness and forgiveness.
Rock solid, however, were the most comic scenes with Caliban and the two drunken bumblers Trinculo and Stephano. Caliban, who’s played masterfully by Joshua Archer as a lizardy miscreant, is the perfect foil to the shipwrecked king’s jester, played by Rodney Lizcano, and his majesty’s butler, played by Sammy Joe Kinnett. The three wrestle hysterically with Caliban’s oddness and their own shiftless motives. The production sails best when these three characters expose the absurdity of nobility and the unshakable unfairness of everything.
Kent’s own magic as director pops in and out of the show. It was especially keen in the ghostly feast scene, and the raucous stealing of the clothes and the mad dogs in Prospero’s cell, both flawlessly pulled off. While some elements of the show were tentative, the challenging task of set and lighting (always tough in the outdoor Mary Rippon theater, where shows start in the light and finish in the dark) were stunning. Three monoliths behind the set morphed throughout the performance to fit the natural elements.
The show sometimes drifted, but Kent and cast righted its course near the end. The company allowed Prospero to muster his hatred, examine it and then trade it off for the miracle of forgiveness. Shakespeare in this play looks hard at how humans can let go of their anger over unspeakable wrongs done by people who are sometimes malevolent or sometimes mistaken. The play overlooks, however, how much easier it is to forgive when the damage is at least somewhat undone. Had the shipwrecked party left Prospero behind to toil with Ariel and Caliban for the rest of his life, would he still have forgiven them? Kent and the cast delivered on those big questions. In the end, when Prospero, an accepted metaphor for the playwright, asks for applause if they approve of his machinations, he, and the cast, have earned it.
THREE OUT OF FIVE STARS
2014 Colorado Shakespeare Festival
Performances on Saturday June 21; July 6, 12, 19, 23, 24, 31; and Aug. 1,5,6,10 Curtain times vary.
Tickets are $23-$64 with some discounts
All shows are at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theater on the University of Colorado Boulder campus