Hartford Stage's "The Tempest:" Where Art Rules

 

Darko Tresnjak's Shakespearean Bow As Artistic Director

 

By FRANK RIZZO

 

First impressions: The smart and stylish production of "Bell, Book and Candle" gave Hartford (and New Haven) audiences a first look at the work of Darko Tresnjak, the new artistic director of Hartford Stage. But it is his production of "The Tempest," which opened Wednesday night, that shows his visionary talents on a wider canvas.

 

The ultimate artistic director here is the Bard's Prospero, the exiled duke-turned-sorcerer, who creates an isle of wounded wonder where his enemies become shipwrecked, his daughter finds love and his own humanity is tested.

 

The gorgeously designed production is expansive-yet-intimate, the language is well-spoken and Daniel Davis is moving and majestic as the wizard in winter. It adds up to an artful show of romance, intelligence and magic -- and a great start to a new era at the theater.

 

What's it about? Compared with other Shakespeare works, this play has a relatively light plot as we find ourselves on a remote and enigmatic island and bide our time as we await the inevitable reunion of a usurping villainous brother, a duped king and an old ally who find themselves dazed and confused on Prospero's turf.

 

The principal tension is whether the powerful Prospero will let virtue or vengeance rule. But even this god-like manipulator isn't quite sure what he will do. This personal struggle (oh, those mood swings) is what drives the play even when its subplots — especially one of a comic drunkard and a fool -- stray off the thematic path. In this production, Davis is both grand and grounded as Prospero seeks closure, not only with his past but with his powers.

 

In what way?: Prospero's island is a world of words -- quite literally in the script-centric look of Alexander Dodge's set design and Fabio Toblini's costumes. Here language conjures a dreamscape where both savages and spirits dwell, principally in the form of Ariel, the spirit of light and imagination and Caliban, the creature of darkness and despair.

 

Like a "Mid-Spring Night's Dream?" Sort of. But in a minor key. Rough magic, you see, comes at a cost.

 

And those spirits? Tresnjak populates this artful isle with dancing, gymnastic and singing spirits and such stuff as dreams are made on. But two, of course, stand out.

 

Ben Cole, a Harrt student, is extraordinary as the grotesque Caliban, bent on a revenge of his own. Big, bald and a decidedly dangerous outcast man-child, this son of a witch is sharply drawn, riveting in speech and simply mesmerizing. Michael Chybowski's lighting also nicely colors our impression of this "not of nature" creature. There's also a wonderfully theatrical moment at play's end when this sad and defeated brute is transformed that is as telling about Prospero as it is about Caliban.

 

Shirine Babb is an assured presence and beautifully voiced as Ariel (you'd want her to be your magical emissary any day) but misses many of the character's complexities in her relationship with Prospero.

 

And the mortals? Sara Topham and William Patrick Riley seemed made for each other as the young lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand; David Barlow brings some nice off-beat touches as a not-so-swift Sebastian; Noble Shropshire exudes noble decency as the good Gonzalo; Jonathan Lincoln Fried is cool and well-measured as the conniving Alonso; Christopher Randolph brings the right amount of mixed emotions as the King of Naples.

 

In the roles of the drunkard and fool, which are often tiresome when not placed in gifted hands, Michael Spencer-Davis and Bruce Turk as Stephano and Trinculo prove they are up to the comic task.

 

Who will like it? Shakespeare fans who appreciate their text well-spoken, sumptuously-designed and inventively-told.

 

Who won't? Not the most action-packed play by the Bard, though David Budries and Nathan A. Roberts sound design and music enlivens the production.

 

For the kids? High schoolers and up might appreciate the production -- especially the low comedy, strong visuals and Joshua Dean's athletic and lyrical acrobatics -- but pre-show and post-show discussion is advisable.

 

Twitter review in 140 characters or less? They had me at the opening storm.

 

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: The elegiac play -- arguably Shakespeare's last play -- is an interesting choice for Tresnjak's Bard debut here and one that shows admirable daring. This is not exactly one of master's "greatest hits" but rather a work that requires a leap of imagination and soul searching for both artists and audience. Oh, brave new world.

 

The basics: The show, which runs 2 hours and 20 minutes, continues through June 10. Tickets are $26.50 to $90.50, not including fees. Information: 860-527-5151 and http://www.hartfordstage.org.


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