Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Tempest"

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"The Tempest"


By William Shakespeare
Directed by Janet Bobcean

Having seen and enjoyed Tuft's ROMEO AND JULIET and MIT's AS YOU LIKE IT and, now, Northeastern's THE TEMPEST, I propose that if you want to see good, "popular" – and inexpensive – Shakespeare, you may want to start with college productions, where chances are you'll find (1) young actors cutting their teeth on the Bard's verse – and liking it – and making up in sincerity what they may lack in voice; and (2) directors – through respect, inexperience and/or a low budget – being far more faithful to the Bard in spirit (if not in production) than many a professional colleague. On the other hand, I have seen enough bad or indifferent college Shakespeare to leave my latest theory in tatters (no doubt I'll have a new one tomorrow), but going by these three recent productions I'll wager that a goodly handful of tomorrow's Shakespeareans are receiving their B.A.s and M.A.s in Boston/Cambridge today. Sadly, this TEMPEST will be gone by the time you will read this (I attended the fifth of eight performances); though it was a curate's egg, much of it went down smoothly.

What a difficult play THE TEMPEST is to pull off! Shakespeare gives his actors, directors and designers precious little to work with (what sort of island is this? and how to present Ariel and Caliban?). Poised between Comedy and Tragedy, Shakespeare's last play is best viewed and played as a fairy tale (a magician, a young maiden, a handsome prince, a wicked uncle, a good fairy and a monster populate this enchanted isle; love and forgiveness, its theme). The tone is elegiac; the last fading rays of Indian Summer – imagine a dying man looking back with a smile as he enters eternity and you won't be far off the mark in "setting" the piece. Understandably, Northeastern's youthful cast could not capture this sense of farewell but in terms of interpretation, director Janet Bobcean chose to simply Tell the Tale and Speak the Speech and, as always, Shakespeare unadorned is rich enough to feast on.

When and where is this TEMPEST set? Perhaps in Edwardian times: Ferdinand, Alonzo & Company wear handsome black and dove-grey suits which are neutral enough so when daggers are produced, the contrast is not jarring. The one exception: Trinculo. In the script, he is Alonzo's jester, and therefore a creature from an Elizabethan court – but to have an actress play him as a ditzy broad dressed in similar male attire makes him/her a puzzlement to those not familiar with the play – who or what is he/she? (CSC's production of yesteryear also cast a woman as Trinculo, but made up and played as a male fop.) Nor is Prospero's isle a pretty place: slate black, divided into three levels (stage floor and two half-circle shelves at 10:00 and 3:00) – and cumbersome for Ariel and his brethren to make fleet-footed entrances and exits. Is the isle "full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs"? Well, there are indeed "a thousand twangling instruments" piped in before each Act, but they be the sounds of jungle beasts performing a jazz riff and do not "give delight" at all. AND – a pet peeve of mine – there are enough blackouts between scenes while actors feel their way on or off stage that stops the play in its tracks. When will directors realize that Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote their works to be performed in broad daylight and sans curtain? That every entrance and exit is justified and does not need an eclipse to cover a character's arrival or departure?

Are there gimmicks in this TEMPEST? Yes; one. For the island's Spirits, Ms. Bobcean employs ten dancers/acrobats, their bodies and faces clad in gray tights a la CIRQUE DU SOLEIL, and her gimmick works well – besides pinching and tormenting Caliban, the Spirits serve as stepping stones from one level to another and – their faces revealed – they tumble and dance in the marriage ceremony (the pagan goddesses Iris, Ceres and Juno are nicely suggested by giant masks on sticks). Ms. Bobcean also uses her Spirits in clever ways: when the drunken Stephano enters, he does his first soliloquy not to the audience, but to three of the Spirits (his gray – not pink – elephants); Ferdinand's indenture consists of his repeatedly carrying one solitary log to stage left and putting it down, followed by a Spirit immediately plucking it up and placing it back at stage right (Sisyphis, forever rolling his rock uphill); and the Opening Storm at Sea features the Spirits waving blue and green scarves around one Spirit who buffets a toy ship. Ironically, the [offstage] Alonso and his men are still drowned; not by this blue-and-green sea but by the over-amplified sound effects. But things improve once we are on dry land and Prospero magically glows into being….

Gilbert Owuor touched me with his Prospero; not so much with his portrayal, but in his efforts to realize it. This young man has a regal presence when onstage – right now, more prince than king – and already shows signs of having a "center" as an actor (though his body movements are slack). But Mr. Owuor also attempts to move beyond mere declaiming and to humanize his lines; to begin to color, inflect and SING. He has already found the melody line of Prospero; if he continues on as a Shakespearean actor, may Mr. Owuor enrich future portrayals with both melody and orchestrations. I look forward to his Othello – among other noble heroes.

As I mentioned in an earlier review, there are some Shakespeare characters whose concept and portrayal can set the tone of an entire play, and Ariel and Caliban are two of them. Happily, both of these tricky roles are pulled off with success.

How to play Ariel, this "airy Spirit"? The actor must divorce himself from his very flesh. Think of wind; think of flame; think of moonlight on water – David Blais' Ariel is all of these. How is he costumed? Quite simply: he wears a white leotard and is barefoot. His face and limbs are mime white; his eyes and hair, ice blue. Though Mr. Blais' torso is muscular, he moves lightly, and he dances even in repose. The effect is cold and unearthly; when you watch this Ariel watching others, you see a Creature sans heart who will never understand these warm mortals that he serves or torments. Wisely, Ms. Bobcean often keeps him on the 10:00 level, afloat above the action. (And as a bonus, Mr. Blais uses his tender/mocking baritone very well.)

Saheem Ali's Caliban is even more impressive. His Deformed Slave is all the more magical for being grounded in reality (if you ever meet a unicorn, I doubt it would be acting like one). His costume? Again, very little: a pair of furry shorts to cover his loins, and streaks of green makeup on his face, arms and back – that is all. Try doing his Caliban Walk: with your left arm, cradle against you a good-sized rock or other bulky object. Crouch down on your haunches. Put your right hand on the ground and lean forward, putting all of your weight on that hand. Still in a crouching position, quickly and nimbly propel yourself forward in pole vaulter fashion – left foot, right foot – without making a sound when you land. Now, perform this Walk over and over throughout your scenes, making it seem both natural and effortless – all the while saying your lines smoothly as if standing still – and you will appreciate Mr. Ali's achievement. (There is one hair-raising moment when Caliban rises on his haunches in defiance; an image to give even Dr. Moreau pause.) Had he moved only half as well, Mr. Ali's bass voice would still convey Caliban's malignity – growls and roars from the back of a very dark cave.

That leaves the third magical character: Miranda, who has never known Man nor Wickedness. Unfortunately, the actress playing her is simply miscast: a pouting brat more suitable for SURVIVOR than Prospero's isle. Had she radiated a sense of wonder or even a stock look of wide-eyed innocence, this Miranda might have squeaked past us despite a flat voice, dull body and coy presence, but such magic never happened. And Ms. Bobcean has encouraged/allowed the actress to upstage Mr. Owuor in his lengthy by crucial Act One monologue. In script form, when Prospero thrice asks Miranda if she is paying heed, I assume she has been looking out to sea at the shipwreck; but here, she has been amusing herself with magician's handkerchiefs – and the audience's attention goes to her, not Prospero. This is also the fourth Shakespeare heroine I have recently seen portrayed as having a raging case of hormones – Getting Laid taking priority over Getting Romanced. Twice this Miranda tackled Ferdinand to the ground – Tigger and Pooh – and for her famous "brave new world" speech, she sidles among the men (I thought of Mae West's line, "All right, boys, get out your resumes…."), stoking Antonio in passing and wiggling her fingers at him once she is back in Ferdinand's arms. Antonio – her uncle, and her father's enemy! Luckily, the play soon ends after this!

Among the others, Damon Timm's Stephano is an amusing, rubber-faced clown, bald as an egg and string as a bean; Scott Adams' Antonio, thought slight in build, is a handsome villain (a future Iago to Mr. Owuor's Othello?), and Mercedes M. Molina's (female) Gonzalo is an amusing old chatterbox – why not cast her as a (female) Polonius?

All in all, a TEMPEST worth seeing, but, again, when you read this, it will have "melted into air, into thin air."

"The Tempest" (7 - 17 November)
Studio Theatre, Curry Student Center Northeastern University, 360 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 373-2247

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