If The Tempest is William Shakespeare's swan song, then the Bard really went out with a bang—at least that's the impression given by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's robust inaugural production of the troupe's 52nd season. Eschewing fancy special effects, Director Bonnie J. Monte relies on sound and light to suggest the magic on Prospero's island and focuses on the beautiful language and the motivations behind the characters' actions, thus turning them into rounded characters.
Beginning but three hours before the story ends, The Tempest involves Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, ruler of an enchanted island, as he sets out to avenge the wrongs brought upon him by his evil brother Antonio, who usurped his kingdom 12 years before. With the help of his enslaved spirit, Ariel, Prospero has conjured up a storm that leaves Antonio’s royal ship and its passengers shipwrecked on his island. Once safely ashore, the courtiers and crew members are manipulated by Prospero like pieces on a chess board and are soon caught up in a tempest of emotion and reason that will change them forever.
Director Monte masterfully moves the actors around the evocative set designed by Brian Clinin in complex choreography that involves climbing up and jumping down from a massive, multilevel rock that fills the entire stage, a feat not without danger for some of the older actors to manage! The "rough magic" of the isle is brilliantly conveyed by Tony Galaska's lighting that takes us from roiling storm to peaceful calm in the wink of an eye; the backdrop of clouds and waves never really changes, but the light makes it seem so. Karin Graybash's atmospheric sound suggests the supernatural aspects of a sprite who manages to confuse the mortals who cannot see her. And the opening scene where we hear the ship breaking up under the assault by wave and wind, and the anguish of those on board as they tumble into the sea to drown is especially powerful.
This leaves us to focus our attention to the actors, all of whom turn in splendid performances. Sherman Howard's Prospero physically and psychologically fills the stage, especially when he is dressed in his magic cloak and brandishes his enchanted staff. He's every bit the aristocrat, whether he rules over Milan or this speck of land between Italy and Tunis in the Mediterranean Sea. Filled with resentment and seeking revenge at the beginning of the play, Howard's Duke is visibly softened by the pure love he witnesses between his daughter Miranda, played to perfection by the lovely Lindsay Kyler, and the Prince of Naples Ferdinand, portrayed by Jackson Moran as a charming youth besotted by the vision who unexpectedly appears before him.
To work his magic, Prospero relies on Ariel, the sprite he has kept in thrall for 12 years; he has vowed to set her free that day as his exile comes to an end. Erin Partin is magnificent as the spirit; she gambols over and around the rock, whispers in various characters' ears and thoroughly befuddles Prospero's antagonists, who were on the wrecked ship, and the butler and jester who provide the comic relief. Dressed in a variety of costumes, all of which feature ropes of seaweed dangling from one place or another, Partin truly is an otherworldly creature. Her delight—relief— at being set free is palpable.
Not so fortunate is the son of the island's original inhabitant, the witch Sycorax, Caliban, whom Prospero has physically and psychologically imprisoned for more than a decade. Jon Barker who usually plays rather heroic roles in STNJ productions (Tovarich and Pericles), is almost unrecognizable here: dirty, crabbed of posture, cringing, whining, and willing to switch allegiance to another master on a dime. That Barker can pull this off (and even evoke some sympathy for the monster) is testament to his talent. He has a very funny turn when Trinculo, the jester, tries to hide under his fish-like cloak; the two men, positioned head to foot, roll around as each tries to escape the other!
Evil is provided by Prospero's brother Antonio and Sebastian, brother of the King of Naples. V Craig Heidenreich (right) fairly drips malevolence (albeit rather elegantly) as he eggs on Sebastian (played with equal smarminess by Andy Baldeschwile to kill his brother and grab the throne of Naples, and makes fun of the old councilor Gonzalo (played with dignity by Richard Bourg) for his kind nature. Andrew Criss is a fine King of Naples, who at one time abetted Prospero's overthrow but now mourns his son Ferdinand whom he believes to be drowned in the storm. Whatever his previous mischief, we sympathize with his grief.
Rounding out the company are Patrick Toon as the king's jester, Trinculo, and Jeffrey M. Bender (right, with Jon Barker, center) as the king's butler, Stephano. They comically stumble around in a drunken stupor for most of the play, thanks to the latter's having "rescued" a butt of wine, from which he refills his gourd whenever it runs dry, which is often. While their actions may not advance the plot, they do provide some relief from the rest of the anguish-fraught conflicts.
Filled with poetry, pageantry and "such stuff as dreams are made of," The Tempest can be seen as a metaphor for the playwright's taking leave of the theater, abandoning his inspiration (Ariel) and retiring to his home village of Stratford. Indeed, Shakespeare consciously frames the tale as a bit of theater by having Prospero declaim as he assents to the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, "Our revels now are ended. These our actors/...were all spirits and/Are melted into air, into thin air./And like the baseless fabric of this vision,/The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,/The solemn temples, the great globe itself—/...shall dissolve,/And like this insubstantial pageant faded,/Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep."
With its message about love and forgiveness, The Tempest reminds us that, instead of melting into thin air and dissolving, it is a play for all times, all places, all people. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is off to a great season with this production. Bravo!
The Tempest will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue (on the Drew University campus), Madison, through June 22. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 PM; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.