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We have been spoiled by the multiplex, lulled into a sense of security and confidence by the men and women behind the curtains who make young wizards fly and enable friendly neighborhood superheroes to swing to the rescue with uncanny precision. We believe, incorrectly, that we have invented the blockbuster. We presume that strange, brave worlds exist only in the borderlands of battles fought by starfighters. We fail to remember that monsters have been chasing the affections of beautiful young girls since long before the invention of the electric light bulb.
And we rarely recognize that well before Lucas and Spielberg were creating the kinds of cinematic fantasies that defined our modern odysseys, men like William Shakespeare were conjuring bastard warlocks, faithful sprites and powerful magicians out of nothing more than a wooden stage and deft ability.
There is perhaps no better way to be reminded of this truth than an evening spent with the Folger Theatre’s production of The Tempest. Raw in its power and elegant in its simplicity, The Tempest is one of an arguably limited number of Shakespearean works that can almost assuredly convince the uninitiated they might actually like Shakespeare.
It begins with, unsurprisingly, a tempest. A storm of incredible power and destruction strands Alonso, the King of Naples, and his companions on what they believe to be a deserted island. The men are separated from the King’s son, Ferdinand, and the company quickly presumes him dead.
But neither the storm nor the separation is an accident. Both are the work of the sprite Ariel at the command of her master Prospero. Prospero, we soon learn, was the Duke of Milan, robbed of his title and stature by his brother Antonio. To ensure that Prospero would be no threat to his scheming, Antonio arranged for his brother and niece, Miranda, to be sealed in a cask and set adrift. It was only through the secret aid of the kind Gonzalo, who remains an advisor to the present king, that Prospero and Miranda were able to survive.
Woven into the story is the monstrous Caliban, son of the witch who once ruled the island, who longs to regain control of his mother’s island kingdom.
The Tempest is a play that threatens to tear the seams of any house it plays, but it is also a show of great risk. After all, staging the moonstruck swooning of a love-sick, teenage couple is one thing; bringing forth a violent sea storm quite another. Helen Hayes Award-winning director Aaron Posner quickly informs his Folger audience that it is in sure and steady hands.
Working in what appears to be a seamless and vibrantly expressive collaboration with fellow Hayes-winning scenic designer Tony Cisek, lighting designer Dan Covey and sound designer Lindsay Jones, Posner sets loose a tempest of sound and vision in the Folger’s tiny theater. Working with carefully choreographed and restrained effects, Posner and company mix sound and light and video in a manner that accentuates without overwhelming.
At the center of the storm, Marybeth Fritzky’s Ariel is nothing short of astonishing. Ethereal in her presence, striking in her performance, it is jarring to see the ghostly sprite take the stage as a flesh-and-bone human being at the show’s end.
Erin Weaver and Michael Rudko are equally lovely in their roles as Miranda and Prospero. Both possess the pleasing ability to deliver Shakespeare’s words as though they were, to put it plainly, simply speaking. Fluid and natural in their performances, energetic and engaging in their dynamic with one another, these actors are a pleasure.
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Praise must also be given to Michael Stewart Allen as Prospero’s brother, Antonio. Allen makes a pleasing villain of Antonio, cunningly decked out in bowler hat, sharp sunglasses and silver tipped cane. He is the kind of character an audience feels almost guilty to enjoy.
If there is an off-note in this production it is Todd Scofield as Caliban. Played too much as a buffoon and appearing too determined to earn the laughter of the audience, Scofield’s Caliban fails to be the hideous and maniacal creature it needs to be. The performance seems out of sync with the tone of the rest of the production.
In The Tempest we are reminded that ”what’s past is prologue,” and that we forget that prologue — all of the storms and battles and tragedies that sprung forth before the rise of Hollywood — to our own disappointment.