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Theater review: “The Tempest” opens Shakespeare Theatre’s season in Madison

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May 31 opening of “The Tempest” at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

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Saturday evening, May 31, saw the opening of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 52nd season with “The Tempest,” by the Bard himself. Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte led a cast comprising thirteen principal and secondary roles, in a performance that was stellar. In a heartfelt welcome to the opening night audience, she mentioned that it was with “The Tempest” that she had made her directorial debut with the company 24 years earlier.

Bonnie J. Monte aptly calls Sherman Howard, for whom this production was mounted, “a force of nature.” He played a majestic Prospero, the ousted Duke of Milan exiled on a fantastical island whose denizens include a monstrous fellow, Caliban, and a water sprite, Ariel.

Jon Barker as Caliban somehow made his character simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic. His scenes with the hilarious drunken Stephano (Jeffrey M. Bender) and Trinculo (Patrick Toon) were over the top. Erin Partin, costumed by Murell Horton, looked like a hybrid between Barbarella and Phoebe Buffet, with the fleet feline movement of Cat Woman. She nevertheless gave a committed performance as Ariel and was the cohesive force that held the story’s various pieces together in a unified whole.

In the role of Prospero’s daughter Miranda, Lindsey Kyler managed to look like a 15-year-old while deploying all the talent of a seasoned actress. Jackson Moran played Miranda’s earnest love interest, the shipwrecked Prince Ferdinand, son of Alonso King of Naples (a rather wooden Andrew Criss).

Deserving of special mention, Richard Bourg did not portray Gonzalo, counselor to Alonso; he was Gonzalo, truly inhabiting the role. His true art lies in capturing the audience’s sympathies regardless of the feelings manifest by the characters surrounding him.

The unit set designed by Brian Clinnin depicted a lava formation with an underground grotto. Lighting Designer Tony Galaska projected lights of all colors and intensity onto the back of the stage, varying with the action and time of day. Particularly effective were the realistic storm clouds that are apropos to such a tempestuous work. Sound effects, including thunderclaps and echoes, came from the craft of Sound Designer Karin Graybash.

The Shakespeare Theatre doesn’t stint on its productions. Space constraints due to the intimacy of the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, which seats 308, actually work to its advantage, as designers and the acting troupe all take advantage of every inch, making every move count.

Performances run through June 22. Up next, June 18–July 27, is the Molière comedy “The Learned Ladies” on the Outdoor Stage. “The Tempest” certainly has gotten the 2014 season off to an auspicious start, creating anxious expectation for the six further productions to come.

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