HVSF Offers A Soul Stirring “Tempest” For Our Times
Unforgettable nights of theater are created out of a confluence of many elements; the play, setting, company, themes and timing. All of these contributions and more work together in an alchemical brew and will have an effect greater than they have any right individually to claim on an audience member. Our hour and a half drive from Albany was amply rewarded by a magical evening of grand, hopefully, unforgettable and immediately touching theater.
“The Tempest” is the last play being produced by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival on the Boscobel grounds after 34 years of residency. It is also believed to be the last play written by Shakespeare before he quit the stage and returned to Stratford-on-Avon. It concerns a banished Duke, Prospero, who has languished for 12 years on a deserted island with his magical books, daughter Miranda and two servants, Ariel and Caliban. He creates a storm, crashing a ship that holds his enemies who usurped his dukedom in Milan at which point the play begins.
The shipwreck opens the play and finds the director, Ryan Quinn, using the grounds outside the playing area of the tent brilliantly. The cast of the play appears instantly through a cloud of stage smoke, over a ridge 30 yards from the stage. They then whipsaw their way back and forth across the field until they are deposited onto the stage where they along with a group of four spirits recreate the ship’s voyage and assist Prospero (the regal, commanding and sometimes petulant Howard Overshown) in his informing Miranda (radiant Kayla Coleman) further of how they came to be where they are. The cast is used by choreographer Susannah Millonzi to illustrate the story as when Antonio (wonderfully skeevy Sean McNall with his feral laugh) peels off from the clock formation when mentioned or they set a scene like becoming the rickety boat that saved Prospero and his daughter or inform the mood as they arrive to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” It is a great, kinetic, thrilling start to the play, unlike any other production I’ve seen of it. There are four ensemble members who are used all night alongside the cast to build these moments from the curtain speech on and they are terrific: Caturah Brown, Jonathan Contreras, Marshall W. Mabry IV and India Shea.
Overshown’s Prospero is powerfully engaged with the story from the opening moments, creating the scene and weighing his responses to all around him. His warmth towards Miranda, withholding liberty to Ariel, and bullying Caliban, all recognizably come from the same place. His conflicted heart is easily and essentially accessible to us and pays off for all in the end.
In his director’s notes, Quinn describes how the etymology of the word tempest begins with the word time and that at its root the play could be called not only The Storm but The Time. The themes of the play of reckoning by Prospero with those who criminally usurped his powers and stole his reign, how he has created his own society and metes out justice to his charges; Miranda, Caliban and Ariel, and his abdication of control of his daughter as she grows into a woman and falls in love with Prince Ferdinand, a buoyant and winning Tyler Fauntleroy. Ferdinand and Miranda’s scene blows like the sweetest island breeze through this production as both clad in white, play romantically together to a comically quick discussion of marriage.
The servants are exceptional here. Jason O’Connell presents a fearsome Caliban, snorting and seemingly balancing on his hind legs for the first time. He has a shapeless figure, talons on his hands and a fathomless, phlegmy voice that comforts and startles you with its depth and richness all at once. His is a fearsome quest for his own worth. Ariel is played by Britney Simpson, utterly unrecognizable from her role as Ann Dandridge in “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” last month. She appears like a bird at his shoulder, eager and competent to do Prospero’s bidding, most forcefully when she is assisted by a pair of flapping wings and amplified voice. These two provide the hellacious human imagination to the natural surroundings of the evening (the river view, crickets and the falling sun) to create a most magical environment.
Nance Williamson plays Alonso after her turn as Miz Martha and gives a maternal heart to the show, Zachary Fine is Sebastian and connives creepily with Antonio and Claudia Logan makes a fine and generous Gonzalo. Kurt Rhoads is a stately Stephano, measuring out his mead and Ralph Adriel Johnson pulls out all the stops as Trinculo. The drunks’ scenes with Caliban are easy to watch.
The evening is greatly enhanced and abetted by a great number of lighting effects by lighting designer Lucrecio Briceno from the scenes staged outside the tent to the many entrances within and a secretly glowing trunk.
The costumes are wonderful on everyone. Besides the ensemble and servants in their earth tones, the European party are all booted with military cut jackets, festooned with sparkling embroidery. Prospero’s cloak is a floor length wonder, off-white with faint lettering and figures discernible and just a drop of red. His donning of a military jacket at the end of the play makes for a great conclusion but stronger than that is his last encounter with Ariel and what is says to us. A challenge of forgiveness for our re-emergence.
“The Tempest” is a rousing meditation on the use and abuse of power and a thrilling summer spectacle harnessing nature and man’s power of invention to surprise and delight.