‘The Tempest’: Shakespeare Theater’s brave, magical New World

Scene from
Scene from Shakespeare Theater's new production of "The Tempest." (Courtesy of the Shakespeare Theater)

WASHINGTON, December 18, 2014 – At the After Party for the Shakespeare Theater’s current production, a wily old theater veteran insisted to me that the opening storm scene is the signature statement of any production of The Tempest.

I beg to differ.

The dominant element after the opening storm scene that distinguishes this production is the expansive island beach, crafted by scenic designer Lee Savage. This evocative setting makes director Ethan McSweeny’s second bite at the apple work.

Here’s a quick look at this Brave New World, via a Shakespeare Theater trailer:

When he was a third-year Columbia undergrad, The Tempest was McSweeny’s first directing opportunity. In that effort, he attempted an outdoor production in the spring that added an occasional unwelcome and unpredictable shower that dampened that production’s outcome and reception. McSweeny’s current effort sails forth on more favorable winds.

Written near the end of his career in the early 1600s—a time when English settlers were first encountering the New World—the exoticism of the unknown fascinated the average Englishman and royalty alike. English shipwrecks and early colonial adventures, ranging from the beaches of Bermuda in the Caribbean Sea to as far north as Virginia—a budding colony named after the “Virgin Queen’ Elizabeth in 1584—inspired writers, poets and playwrights alike and undoubtedly served as the basis for The Tempest.

In his recent comments on this play, McSweeney pointed out, “It is widely believed that The Tempest is Shakespeare’s final work and through that lens it is hard not to see how he infuses the play with a bittersweet farewell to his muse. On some level, Prospero, Ariel and Caliban embody the relationship between the artist, muse and his work.”

“One of the great threads of The Tempest,” he continued, “is a classic revenge narrative that explores the very nature of forgiveness. It has always meant a lot to me [that] at the end of his career, it is [in] forgiveness that Shakespeare starts to locate the saving virtue of our humanity.”

After a dark and thunderous opening scene, The Tempest smoothly shifts to a barren, sprawling beach. Here, the shipwrecked nobleman and sorcerer Prospero conjures up a vengeful plot against the King of Naples, his brother and other lost lords who later wind up on the island, wandering in search of the King’s son Ferdinand. Inconveniently for them, however, Ferdinand falls under the spell of Prospero’s beautiful daughter, Miranda. Predictable complications ensue. Along with a little bit of magic when it’s needed.

This production is blessed with the considerable presence of veteran Shakespearian actor Geraint Wyn Davies as Prospero. He returns to STC where his performances as Cyrano, Richard III, and Don Armado in Love’s Labor’s Lost have already been well received.

But as strong as Davies’ dominant performance is in this production, it was Sofia Jean Gomez’ interpretation of Ariel—the play’s delicate Peter Pan-like spirit-messenger—and Clifton Duncan’s excellent performance as the tormented slave Caliban, that frequently stole the show. Both actors were superb, convincingly carrying out their physically demanding roles as Prospero’s casters (and recipients) of dark and mystical spells.

Sofia Jean Gomez is a remarkably aerial Ariel. (Screen capture from Shakespeare Theater promo trailer)

Sofia Gomez, in particular, spent the greater part of her performance impressively hovering twenty feet above the stage via an invisible harness. This remarkably effective special effect required both the considerable behind-the-scenes assistance of “Flying” director Stu Cox and the technical support of Cirque de Soleil contractor ZFX to seamlessly pull off the flying effects in this production.

For her part, Ms. Gomez has noted that “Playing Ariel is like taking a two hour spin class every night.” We don’t doubt it. The result, though, is theater magic.

The precise opposite of Ariel’s aerial lightness, the brutally down-to-earth Caliban is often considered one of Shakespeare’s most controversial characters. In his portrayal of Caliban as a deformed monster and demonic spirit, Clifton Duncan transcends the colonial stereotype and harsh put-downs rained upon him by Prospero to deliver his definitively hilarious drunken, under-cover scene. Along with his counterpart in this scene—namely Liam Craig as the King’s jester Trinculo—both actors provide the comedy highlight of this production.

Caliban’s rebellious plot with Stephano and Trinculo is only one of three subplots plots that play out simultaneously in The Tempest. A second subplot focuses on the play’s young lovers.

Prospero busily weaves his spells on everyone, including his teenage daughter Miranda who falls for Ferdinand, the lost son of the King. Ferdinand is portrayed by local talent Avery Glymph, who was locally trained at GW’s Academy for Classical Acting.

Unfortunately, the chemistry between Ferdinand and Miranda is not as believably passionate as we might expect. They appear to be a physical mismatch and Glymph’s rather stiff portrayal of Ferdinand never really softens under the appealingly romantic glow of Miranda’s naïve infatuation.

The play’s third subplot involves the ongoing attempt of the treacherous brothers Antonio and Sebastian to murder King Alonso.

They are thwarted, however, by Prospero. Under his direction, Ariel undermines their evil machinations by gradually manipulating the play’s three roving group of fools into a dramatic confrontation, culminating in an unexpected outcome in which Prospero forgives the King and his brother Antonio, ending the play on an uplifting and moral high note.

TSC’s current production of The Tempest rates three-and-one-half out of four stars for its visually commanding performance by its ensemble cast of 23, led by Geraint Wyn Davis, Sofia Jean Gomez and Clifton Duncan. In addition, this production is aided considerably by the contributions made by its sophisticated set designers, flying, and puppet coaches, all of which combine to magically transport the audience from the storminess of life to a beach of forgiveness, dreams and infinite possibilities.

The Shakespeare Theater’s current production of The Tempest continues at Sidney Harman Hall through January 11, 2015.

For tickets and information, visit The Shakespeare Theater website.


Family Week: The Shakespeare Theatre Company is also offering a Family Week at The Tempest from now through December 20. Designed for moms, dads and children of all ages, events include performances of “The Tiny Tempest” for kids from 5 to 10, and behind-the-scenes discussions and demonstrations on stage effects, costuming and more. Visit www.ShakespeareThratre.org/FamilyWeek for more information and ticket details.

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