Shakespeare's Tempest is his magnum opus, a densely packed confection of character, language, and stagecraft, and the fresh, energetic production by the Contemporary Theater Company (CTC) in Wakefield brings it to life with outstanding performances, immersive theatrics, and seven tons of sand.
It's a simple story: Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan (Shawn Fennell) and his daughter Miranda (Brynne Sawyer) have been trapped on an island whose only inhabitants are his servant spirit, Ariel (Amelia Giles) and the evil monster Caliban (Amy Lee Connell). Through magic, Prospero raises a storm which wrecks a passing ship carrying the sister who usurped him, Antonio (Tammy Brown) and her ally Alonso, the Queen of Naples (Stephanie Traversa), with her treacherous sister Sebastian (Christine Cauchon). Also washing up on shore are Alonso's son, Ferdinand (Patrick Keefe), Prospero's ally Gonzalo (Terry Simpson), and the Queen's servants Trinculo (Sami Avigdor) and Stephano (Meghan Rose Donnelly). Prospero, with Ariel's help, arranges that Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love, while thwarting the plots of Antonio and Sebastian and to kill Alonso and of Caliban and the servants to take over the island.
On the surface, The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's most conventional plays (boy meets girl, two groups scheme to seize power, all executed while preserving the three unities) but what makes it transcendent is the magical mastermind, Prospero, who — like Shakespeare himself — is arranging all the action with the aid of his all-important book. Fennell plays Prospero with a thoughtful modernity; not a classical larger-than-life magus, but rather an occasionally diffident, damaged genius. Think Steve Jobs. Or think of Shakespeare, writing a part for his younger self, thematizing the experience of writing. It's a role with range and heft, and Fennell lives up to the task, by turns a manic scribbler of enchantments, a doting parent, an introspective philosopher-king in exile.
Prospero's daughter, Miranda, is a similarly challenging part, but for a different reason: We've seen her a million times since Shakespeare scratched her to life on parchment. Sawyer succeeds in capturing the raw essence of Miranda's open-eyed wonder, a tricky task in our postmodern world, archetype rather than cliche.
In many ways, the pivot of the play is Caliban, the sole native of the island and an embodiment of humanity's base nature (the Id to Ariel's Superego, if you will). With this role — as with Antonio, Alonso, and Stephano — director Christopher Simpson has chosen to flip the gender, and it produces interesting collisions of text and action. Connell offers a Caliban more misguided than monstrous, with a fine tragic edge to her adoration of the sozzled courtiers, the delightfully loopy duo of Donnelly and Avigdor. (The beat where Donnelly ruefully pours swamp water from her boot is laugh-out-loud funny, and watch for the genuinely frightful demons that foil the drunken attackers).
Stephane Traversa's Alonso is nicely fraught, with authentic cracks in her regal bearing that reveal anguish at the loss of her son (played with appropriate dash and brio by Keefe.) Cauchon and Brown are a cunning, charmingly evil pair of schemers, to whom Terry Simpson's obstinate Gonzalo offers a solid foil. Watch for the beat where Cauchon kicks over Miranda's rocks. Nicely done.
Threading through all of this (and often invisibly tweaking the action) is Prospero's spritely agent, Ariel, played with charm and wit by Giles. She steals a scene hovering over Ferdinand as he stacks logs, invisibly spiriting them back across stage in a Sisyphean loop. It's an inspired bit of staging, one of those perfect moments of theater. Giles brings a tremendous vocal talent as well. The Tempest is full of snippets of song, which often get shortchanged in performance, but not here, where Simpson's vision and Giles's voice combine to make this an evening where the melodies break through.
None of that would work without the outstanding soundtrack provided by Matthew Requintina, who tracks the action so well he should rightfully be mentioned as another cast member. From the whirl of the opening storm through the end of the bows, he perches on an off-stage riser with an electric guitar providing a near-continuous stream of incidental music, naturalizing the moments where Giles breaks into song. The rest of his score is an eclectic, highly effective mix of sonic effects and ambient motifs in the best Eno/Fripp/Belew tradition.
The set is equally magical, a three-quarter-round that packs literally every inch of the CTC space like a fractal. In a brilliant stroke of design, Donnelly (who also plays Stephano) has replaced the entire stage area with a pit, filled with seven tons of sand. Framed with a simple backdrop of canvas sheets and surrounded by a walkway of weathered boards, it offers a perfect, flexible milieu. Prospero's simple hut occupies the center bank of seats, putting the actors, at times, behind the audience.
Director Simpson has as many tricks up his sleeve as Prospero, and he puts a stake in the ground — literally — with a dazzling, kinetic opening storm that will have your head spinning. He has made inventive casting decisions, and coached excellent performances all around. In a refreshing departure from overwrought "stage British," Simpson keeps the action moving with dialog occasionally delivered at the frenetic pace of Paddy Chayefsky done by Ken Russell. And the dynamic, expansive staging — especially the gutsy decision to kill a whole section of seats to thrust Prospero's shack out into the audience — makes the show feel much larger than the physical space.
This is a wonderful production. Highly recommended.
At the Contemporary Theater, 327 Main St. in Wakefield, RI. Fridays and Saturdays, Oct. 19 and 20, Oct. 26 and 27, and Nov. 2 and 3 at 7 pm, all (unreserved) seats $20. Thursday Oct 25, pay what you can at the door or $15 advance. Tickets available and more info at the CTC web site or (401) 218-0282.