The Tempest -- A Farewell to the Theater?
By Bob & Karen Isaacs
The Tempest, which is now getting a magical production at Hartford Stage, is considered one of Shakespeare’s final, if not his last, theatrical effort. As such the interpretations of the play have to do with settling old scores, healing old wounds, atoning for past indiscretions, forgiving old injuries and even saying goodbye.
What you have is a beautiful fable about a duke (Prospero) who has been ousted by a greedy brother and set adrift with his infant daughter. Saved by a well-meaning courtier who has provided them with necessities -- including the duke’s books, the very things that weakened his rule but still provide him with the wisdom to rule -- they arrive at an island where they meet the inhabitants whom Shakespeare creates as two of the major parts of a human being, the physical (Caliban) and the spiritual (Ariel). The duke managed to get these two to do his bidding and so has made a life for himself and his daughter (Miranda) on the island.
Incidentally, Shakespeare’s sources for this island were the logs of a British ship that had run aground on what we now believe was Bermuda. The logs, known as The Bermuda Papers, provided Shakespeare with the necessary inspiration for the magical qualities of the island and the locale for a beautiful story.
As luck would have it, the persons involved in the duke’s ouster are returning from a wedding and pass within the scope of the duke’s power, and through his abilities are shipwrecked on the island. It is now the duke’s opportunity to take revenge, but revenge only breeds revenge and as such he allows the castaways to atone for their past indiscretions and forgives them. That is one of the qualities of what is known as a romance, but Shakespeare was also writing a comic drama and as such there is a love affair and the play ends with a wedding.
Hartford Stage Company director Darko Tresnjak and his stage designer Alexander Dodge have put together the magic and turned out a beautiful work that reflects many of the issues and keeps the audience’s attention. From the opening moments when a sleeping woman awakes and is integrated into the first scene, you are caught in the magic of the play.
No little of the success here is due to the staging, the lighting (by Michael Chybowski) the sound design and music (by Nathan A. Roberts) and the costumes (by Fabio Toblini) that bring the characters and the story to the fore. But heading the list is Daniel Davis as Prospero, the magician, who has been abandoned on the island with his daughter, Miranda, the delicate and wide-eyed Sara Topham. Prospero is not only the author of the events but also is kind of an impresario through whom the audience stays in touch with the strange happenings.
Davis' chief agent is Shirine Babb who along with three others plays the role of Ariel the creative force behind the events. Since Ariel is a spirit, she is able to create illusions for the other characters and the audience too. These illusions include a couple of terrific storms, the sounds of animals, the wreck of the ship, and the separation of the ship’s company on the island. She also brings a wonderful feast to the hungry survivors and removes it with a gesture. In the text for The Tempest a rare stage direction calls for the feast to vanish “with ac quaint device.” In this case not only did it drop from above but was hauled back up to the amazement of the characters. Ariel also provides several songs and music that draw the characters on.
One can’t omit the work of Ben Cole as Caliban, a native of the island and the son of the witch Sycorax who serves Prospero for his physical needs, gathering wood, for example. Prospero has attempted to educate him but he is a creature of nature and thus has real desires one of which was an attempt to rape Miranda. He is kept in line by a series of pinches and cramps. First he gloats that he regrets his failure with Miranda because had he been successful he would have populated the island with Calibans and his joining with two of the survivors of the ship -- the drunken Stephano and Trinculo, a great comic duo -- as they attempt to kill Prospero.
Since this is a Shakespearean comedy there are no deaths, all deaths are thwarted including those of the sailors on the presumed shipwreck.
The audience response to the events and the magic is visceral and Prospero’s curtain speech, a traditional Elizabethan technique, draws the audience directly into the magic not only of the play but the theater as well. Prospero asks for applause from the audience so that the play can end and he will be free to go back to his home and perhaps as an actor even leave the theater.
While we object to the current fashion of a standing ovation for everything, this production certainly earned that special treatment and got it.
Hartford Stage has a long history of outstanding Shakespeare productions and it clear that Tresnjak, who is finishing year as artistic director, will carry on this tradition. We were especially impressed with how well the entire cast handled the Shakespearean language.
You can’t go wrong with a visit to Hartford Stage Company for this magical theatrical experience.
The Tempest is at Hartford Stage Company, 50 Church St., in downtown Hartford through June 10. For tickets and information call the box office at 860-527-5151 or online at hartfordstage.org.
This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers May 30, 2012 and online at Zip06.com.