Missing the Magic

Great music and a functional set can't give life to this dull Shakespeare production

The Tempest, written late in William Shakespeare's career and probably the last play he wrote without a collaborator, is a spirited tale about vengeance and reconciliation, magic and passion.

Unfortunately, you would never know that from the Rogue Theatre's lackluster production of the play, which opened last week.

The action is unfocused, and the energy is flat in this version of the play, conceived by director Cynthia Meier. Little seems to be at stake. There's no palpable sense of desire or conflict. Characterizations are problematic. And though there are some bright spots, the overall effect is dull and lifeless.

Some of these problems are actually grounded in Shakespeare's piece itself. His story is an eloquent and entertaining tale—although it's far from his most profound or fun work. The plot, such as it is, is very loose. Shakespeare's interest seems to be less with the story than with creating a magical atmosphere. There are those who believe Shakespeare's play is actually about the magical art of theater itself.

Prospero (John Wilson), the former duke of Milan, has been exiled to an island with his daughter Miranda (Dallas Thomas) after his brother Antonio (Brian Taraz), aided by Alonso, King of Naples (Philip G. Bennett), usurped the rule and banished them. Prospero, whose power now consists of a command of magical spells and a sprite named Ariel (Patty Gallagher), senses that a ship bearing Antonio, Alonso and some of their friends and kin is close to the island. He conjures a storm, and the ship's passengers are thrown overboard. Some are washed onshore; Alonso is separated from his brother, Sebastian (Nic Adams), and son, Ferdinand (Robert Anthony Peters), and fears they have drowned.

But they have not. Prospero, with Ariel's help, uses his magic to cause Miranda and Ferdinand to fall in love. Alonso, his counselor Gonzalo (Jon Benda), Antonio and Sebastian wander around the island; due to another of Prospero's spells, Alonso and Gonzalo fall asleep, and when Antonio and Sebastian plot to kill their sleeping comrades so Sebastian will become king of Naples, Ariel intervenes at Prospero's command.

Two other shipmates, Stephano (David Morden) and Trinculo (Ryan DeLuca), wander drunkenly, meeting up with the deformed monster-like Caliban (Joseph McGrath), a man whom Prospero has enslaved. Their shenanigans provide most of the comedy—and a source of the all-too-rare energy we need to be able to connect with the tale.

Finally—and in this instance, I do mean finally—Prospero forgives his kin and countrymen, and they party as they prepare to sail back to Milan.

The production begins promisingly, with a very effective scene—quite magically conceived and executed—as the ship and its passengers are tossed about. There is no ship, just actors who, along with some primitive but convincing sound effects, take us onboard with them, rocking wildly amid shouts in the crashing rain. The scene brings great promise that the play we are about to see will be told with creative theatricality, driven by the energy of invention. Alas, it was not to be.

Part of the problem is that most of the characterizations are questionably drawn and unconvincing. As Prospero, Wilson is a striking figure, but he is unable to give us a credible sense of what he's doing, and why. There is little sense of what he feels—and what is propelling him to act. Is he angry? Motivated by vengeance? And what changes his mind? Why forgive and be reconciled? It may be there in the text, but it's not in Wilson's subdued characterization.

This disconnect—between the actors' understanding of Shakespeare's language and an ability to translate this language into characters who pull their storytelling weight—is all too evident in several acting performances. It's one of the tough things about doing Shakespeare: Comprehending and delivering the bard's words in a way that makes sense is important, but it's not enough. Certainly, the words have to mean something to the actors, but the actors have to communicate this meaning to the audience within the context of the story. In this production, we might hear what the actors say, but what they mean doesn't jump from the stage to the audience.

There are a couple of bright spots. Morden creates a wonderfully wrought Stephano—stumbling, drunk and totally befuddled to find himself on this strange island. Joseph McGrath's set is plain but functional, and actually suggests the simplicity of the space that Shakespeare would have had to work with. And musical director Dawn C. Sellers creates the most magical aspect of the show with the music of Debussy, Elliott Carter and Ravel, as well as original compositions which she performs on piano, clarinet and percussion. She is accompanied by Paul Amiel with flutes, harp and percussion. This is the most successful component of the production.

Sometimes an opening-night performance, such as the one I attended, can be a bit ragged, while subsequent shows find an effective shape and pace. I truly hope that's the case here, but I fear that there is not enough inventive direction or substantive performances to make this a really effective production.

The Rogue usually gives us very solid shows, but here, I fear they have simply given us a tempest in a teapot.