Taking Amtrak down to Washington DC from New York(and back) is really a delightful way to spend a holiday day away from Mad Manhattan. Even though I was on the Northeast Regional NOT the super-fast Acela, the trip seemed to fly and it was a canny, apt prediction of the delightful flights of fancy Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” I was to witness when I got there.
At Washington’s Harmon Theater, right in the heart of their Chinatown, the Shakespeare Theater Company is now presenting a very creditable, and sometimes absolutely delightful production of Shakespeare’s late comedy “The Tempest.” Often thought of as Shakespeare’s retirement play, it revolves, of course, around the famous character of Prospero, an aging magician and former and now deposed Duke of Milan, who has been exiled to this tropical, semi -Caribbean isle, where he has taught himself all of the black arts of mystery and enchantment and magic.
Talented young director Ethan McSweeney does bring the magic to his production of “The Tempest,” especially in Act Two when he has interpolated the role of “The Voice” for the beautiful, talented Broadway vet Nancy Anderson to sing as larger than life (and almost this stage) iridescent puppets of the goddesses of Juno, Ceres, etc. who seem to dwarf and devour the island. Designed and coached by James Ortiz, this triumvirate parade of monumental myths is proceeded in Act II by Sofia Jean Gomez’ Ariel descending from the heights all in black as an ominous Lady Gaga/Spiderwoman figure with huge black, drapery wings.
In fact, this is the only production of “The Tempest” I have ever seen where Ariel, Prospero’s imprisoned sprite, dominates the story. As performed by Ms. Gomez, this Ariel is CONSTANTLY in flight, literally and figuratively, under the astounding flight direction of Stu Cox, and the flying effects of ZFX, Inc. Sometimes butch as can be, sometimes as light as air, Ms. Gomez’ memorable fairy nymph flies into our hearts and memories.
Part punk-rocker, part gymnast, and part Tinkerbell and all girl, Gomez has an especially strong moment at the end, when her master Prospero frees her and the golden rope she has been suspended from falls to the ground with a thud, as her white, silk robe transforms from something athletic and imprisoning into something feminine, stately and beautiful, and she turns on her former master and doesn’t even look back or say good-bye. Not even a glance backward, she is no one’s slave now. And brava to Ms. Gomez, I say.
In fact, it is the supporting players and the dazzling Special Effects and Jenny Giering’s ethereal just-right music, that seize this “Tempest” and makes it as magical as magic can be.
Main among the delights is the great young actor Dave Quay’s hilarious turn as the drunken butler Stephano, a role I have never remembered from any previous “Tempest.” In fact, the play barely has a pulse until he arrives stumbling and bumbling and bellowing to great comic effect to wake up the audience towards the end of Act One.
Quay doesn’t miss a beat or a laugh, and he put me in mind of the great Oliver Hardy of the early screen duo of Laurel and Hardy, though he is not stout in the least. He was comically paired with Liam Craig as Trinculo, the also ship-wrecked and also drunk Jester, who was bedecked in jingle-bells so you always knew when they were coming, or leaving, or moving, or anything.(Costumes designed by Jennifer Moeller). It had a very Christmas-y effect.
Less unfortunate is the casting of the central figure of Prospero, the Welsh actor and Stratford Festival regular Geraint Wyn Davies, who was simply too young and too robust for the part of the aging, about-to-retire wizard. I had seen and admired greatly Davies’ performance as the bastard in “King Lear” supporting Christopher Plummer’s great Lear at Lincoln Center a few seasons back.
And this Tempest put me in mind of the problems always associated with casting King Lear, the other great End-of-Life character in Shakespeare. If you have someone who is the right age for Lear, he invariably may be too old or too frail to do it.
There needs to be at least SOME of that frailty in Prospero. In Wyn Davies’, extremely healthy, hearty and hale performance, there was no hint of “The End.” And there should’ve been.
But around him is this great frame of a set by Lee Savage, a great ship-wreck scene that starts the play with a vertiable tempest at sea, and the best use I have ever seen of a chorus of spirits, and I’m going to mention them all! Ross Destiche, Freddie Bennett, Asia Kate Dillon, Ben Henderson, Dan Jones, Matthew Pauli, Stephanie Schmalzle, Kendren Spencer, Jessica Thorne, and Katherine Renee Turner, under the spirited direction of choreographer Matthew Gardiner. These are the noble, able-bodied and adept souls animating those gigantic puppets under the direction of Puppetry Captain Dan Jones.