The trick with Shakespeare is always to make it accessible and understandable. Joe Dowling, former Artistic Director of the Guthrie, returns to direct and succeeds beyond all expectations. What was I expecting? I’ll tell you what I wasn’t expecting, David Bowie for one. Under Dowling’s direction we are treated to a brave new vision of The Tempest. Recasting the gender of the lead role from Prospero now to Prospera doesn’t alter the plot but it does affect the tone and feel of the play in many subtle but rewarding ways. Other bold decisions follow as the play progresses, and each is a welcome surprise. While the show stops sort of falling into that category of musical it comes awfully close. The music works wonderfully, those were some of my favorite moments in a show that plays like a list of favorite moments.
One of Shakespeare’s final plays The Tempest has a little of everything, comedy, romance, intrigue, monsters and magic. The opening scene takes place aboard a ship which comes suddenly upon a violent storm that washes many of the characters overboard and onto an island. The shipwreck we learn was the result of Prospera’s magic. She has conjured the Tempest in order to exact revenge on her enemies. Twelve years previously she, then Duke of Milan, and her daughter Miranda were set adrift at sea by her brother Antonio who with the aid of Alonso the King of Naples took control of Milan. Aboard the ship were Antonio, and Alonso. Prospera has conspired through her magic and the assistance of the spirit Ariel to separate the shipwrecked passengers. Her prime targets are together along with the traitorous Sebastian, a trusted counselor Gonzala, and some servants, they believe the King’s son Ferdinand has perished and search for him without much hope. Ferdinand has led to Prospera and Miranda, whom he falls instantly in love with. A Third group is made up of the King’s jester Trinculo and butler Stephano, they come across Caliban, a monstrous being that Prospera’s enslaved, whom they befriend with the help of the King’s stock of liquor which Stephano has fortunately saved from the ship. The play cuts between these groups each almost representing a different genre, there is political intrigue and drama with the King and his group, romance with Ferdinand and Miranda, comedy with Stephano and Trinculo and the stores of liquor, and magic and fantastical elements with Prospera and Ariel.
I honestly don’t know what to praise first, the show is such a delight. The cast is especially strong led by Regina Marie Williams as Prospera. She has a gravitas that makes you believe she can control the heavens as well as a lightness that allows her to find humor in her reactions to other characters. We believe her desire for revenge but also her love for her daughter and happiness. Some exquisite line readings as well, “No Tongue” is particularly well timed and played. Second, only to Williams on the stage is local favorite, Tyler Michaels King as the spirit Ariel. Proving once again that he has a phenomenal singing voice, a mischievous sense of humor, and movement as graceful as a cat. While Williams draws our focus and captivates, Tyler Michaels King lightens our spirits, it is an effective combination and on their shoulders alone, this production would be a triumph. But they are not alone they are aided by many wonderful performers. Other favorites were Robert Dorfman as Stephano and Angela Timberman as Trinculo who are fabulous together as the comic relief storyline. Laakan McHardy as Miranda and John Kroft as Ferdinand also shine as the young lovers.
Dowling right off the bat removed any sense of the expected. The stage set at the beginning was completely unexpected, a grand piano, some nice chairs, and a large mast and sails that look too large to be moveable. Then the handling of the storm followed shortly thereafter by the reveal of the main set and the reenactment of the storm, and from then on I knew to throw out expectations. His use of the turntable stage is sparingly, but when it is, it’s done very effectively. The staging of the Marriage Masque scene is a sequence that can only be described as pure joy. The sets designed by Alexander Dodge are dynamic. The Lighting Design by Xavier Pierce is simply incredible, creating shifts in tone out of nowhere and somehow transforming the stage and set to all purple at one point. The costumes by Ann Hould Ward are truly splendid, of special note are Ariel’s two costumes and those of beasts sent to frighten Trinculo and Stephano. Sound design by Jane Shaw helps to sell the storm effectively. Finally the fine work of the Music Director/composer Keith Thomas must be acknowledged, music plays a large role in this production and it all fits perfectly.
The Guthrie Theater’s production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest will make for a great introduction to the Bard’s work for newcomers. The way to expose first timers to Shakespeare is to circumvent their expectations of a stuffy, creaky, boring old play that you will sleep through. This production is a perfect example of how Shakespeare can be vibrant and full of life, understandable, and intoxicating. The Tempest runs through April 16th, for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.guthrietheater.org/
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