By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
During the summer months, New Orleans is a city beset in its defense from raging storms. But the mystical literary storm that approaches it now via the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane University – The Tempest – has much to be admired, not feared.
Director and managing director Claire Moncreif has done a very capable job in transforming the Shakespearean parable of Prospero into one that can easily be appreciated by modern audiences without resorting to the temptation so prevalent these days of updating the work with contemporary music or modern costumes.
The key figure of Prospero is played by Danny Bowen, who turns in a most impressive performance as the wronged and rightful Duke of Milan, cast out to sea with his toddler daughter Miranda by his younger brother Antonio a dozen years before the opening of the tale. Bowen’s performance, like the title of the work suggests, rages without many subtleties in the second act, but he stays true to the intention of the author throughout the work and the result is a wholly satisfying experience.
Fellow New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) graduates Payton Smith and Reid Williams portray Miranda and her eventual love interest, Ferdinand, the son of King Alonso of Naples, respectively. There are key scenes under which Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love, pledging their troth and where Prospero solicits a promise from Ferdinand that he shall protect her chastity. While their characters lack much in depth, the poetry of Shakespeare is represented well in these scenes in addition to those of Miranda and Prospero engaging as a naive adolescent and her protective father.
Another NOCCA graduate, Celeste Cahn, is delightful as the spirit Ariel, rescued from Sycorax, an evil witch, years earlier by Prospero, who is the only one aware of her presence. Desirous of her freedom, she spies unseen on the visitors to the island, bound to carry out the wishes of the sorcerer as he seeks to even the score between him and his brother and to have what was taken from him restored.
Casey Groves plays a rather subdued Antonio. Where the tendency would be to cast him as the heavy, he is not overtly evil or particularly menacing. We see Antonio as more of an opportunist, who is forced to accept that fate meted out by Prospero and his powerful spell.
The traitor in the midst is that played by Burton Tedesco in his role of Caliban, the deformed beast and son of Sycorax, who seeks to find ways to do away with Prospero so that he can inherit his island and avenge his mother. For this purpose he enlists the king’s butler Stephano (Brendan Bowen) and Trinculo (Graham Burk), who Shakespeare intends as more a dandy than a devil. It is somewhat obvious from the start that no plot could truly succeed under the manipulation created by Prospero, but we are obliged to watch to see how it all plays out.
As usual, James Bartelle turns in a strong supporting role as Gonzalo, a courtier who helped protect Prospero and Miranda at the time of their expulsion and struggles to understand what is happening to them while on the enchanted isle. John Ray Proctor, who portrays the king has the presence, but a more regal bearing would have enhanced his portrayal.
Moncreif also employs a talented set of spirits, most of whom are interns in the All Things Shakespeare summer program and several of them also recent NOCCA graduates.
The costumes designed by Jenn Jacobs are of the Elizabethan period and are quite striking. The lighting by artistic director and Theatre Department chair Martin Sachs, as always, is effective. David Raphel’s set is sparse, but accomplishes the goals of the director and the bard, transforming from a seagoing vessel in the initial scene into the island itself.
In her director’s notes, Moncreif accepts that the meaning of The Tempest, perhaps more than any other play by Shakespeare, is difficult to understand. How can a ship survive a wreck at sea intact and with “not so much perdition as an hair” to its crew and passengers? How does Prospero know when the optimum time is to unleash his tempest? He clearly understands knowledge beyond the pale of mere mortals. Consider that he hears the cries and rescues Ariel from her imprisonment within a cedar tree by Sycorax years before, much less his ability to see and converse with her. What is it in those volumes Prospero treasures above his dukedom?
The mystical nature of the work with its multiple layers of difficulty, has made it a modern favorite of scholars, but this was not the case at the time of its debut. Moncrief’s vision is to tell the story in as simple a fashion as needed. The words and the actors play their parts well and are “such stuff as dreams are made on.”
The Tempest continues at Tulane University’s Lupin Theater through July 23. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 504-865-5106.