The dueling forces of light and dark are constantly at play in the fantasy-meets-reality world of A Noise Within’s The Tempest, the first production of its 2014-15 season. Deborah Strang takes on the role of Prospero in a gender-switch that now finds mother and daughter (rather than father and daughter) stranded on an island some twelve years after Prospero’s brother Antonio (Time Winters) has usurped her power in Milan and set them both adrift in a boat to die at sea. Unfortunately for Antonio, they didn’t die, and now the time has come for Prospero to restore her daughter to her rightful place, forgive the injustices done to them, and complete a circle of life.
As with every ANW production, the stagecraft and theatrical effects are striking and never fail to impress. Lightness comes in the form of whimsical touches: a storybook cutout set design with giant construction paper-like trees, fanciful white dresses and enormous hats for the ladies, a ping pong match between the lovers, and songs delicately sung by chanteuse Eliza Kiss.
And yet, it is still a dark island that Prospero and Miranda (Alison Elliott) inhabit, populated with spirits and mystical creatures, all of whom do Prospero’s bidding. An arresting storm opens the play, consisting of large black billowing cloths fastened to Ariel’s (a powerful Kimberleigh Aarn) waist that form a skirt manipulated by others on stage while she tosses Antonio’s boat in her hands until it is shipwrecked. It is a storm conjured at the behest of Prospero, whom Ariel is beholden to after Prospero released her from imprisonment in a tree when she initially arrived on the island. At the end of this story Prospero has promised to release her yet there is important work to be done before that can happen.
Prospero’s other main servant is Caliban (Geoff Elliott), the half man half monster whom she rules by fear and intimidation. From the moment he crawls out from beneath a ramp and cowers in front of Prospero, he becomes less a horror and more a heartbreak in a performance by Elliott that is unexpectedly moving. His final moment with Prospero at the end of the play couldn’t be any more surprising or satisfying in showing the evolution of their relationship as Prospero closes the book on her journey.
The sound design and original music by Peter Bayne are an intriguing blend of industrial and mechanical effects interspersed with the tribal rhythms of the islands, and though the set looks sprung from the pages of a book, it draws most of its power from the darkness. Bold reds, greens, purples, and golds, imposing images, and many shadows make up Ken Booth’s lighting design and there is a weight in Frederica Nascimento’s scenic design that makes this tale feel very close to the edge of the underworld. There are no pastel fairies of light flying through the air. Rather, these spirits come masked and grounded in the earth with even Aarn possessing a bit of voodoo energy, much like one might see in an old time dustbowl sideshow. The pre-recorded voice for some of Ariel’s scenes, however, was distracting.
Comic characters contribute to the airiness, especially when Trinculo (Kasey Mahaffy) and Stephano (Jeremy Rabb) arrive on the island. In the real world they are nothing more than King Alonso of Naples’ (Stephen Rockwell) clown and butler but here on the island in their drunken revelry they decide to kill Prospero and rule over it themselves. They make a willing co-conspirator out of Caliban by getting him drunk and diverting his loyalty away from Prospero to them, until he realizes their true nature and regrets his decision. Rab’s drinking songs and exchanges with Mahaffy, and Elliott as his “servant monster,” are great fun and a welcome diversion to the drama. Elliott also has a beautiful speech that expresses how much he loves the island, one of those unexpected moments that show Caliban to be more than he appears at first glance and it is quite wonderful.
If Ferdinand (Paul David Story) and Miranda (Alison Elliott) had the same kind of connection with each other – and the audience – that he has, it might be easier to become engaged in their quick romance. Instead, this Miranda comes off as a modern, petulant teen with a mean streak that makes her difficult to like. Shakespeare’s lines are bullet-proof so she gets the laughs but missing is the innocence and sweetness of a young girl in awe of the new events that are taking place in this otherwise familiar home.
Strang, always a thoughtful actor, this time takes an icier road in her choices as Prospero. Late in the play her affection for her spirits becomes evident but I felt a distance in her throughout much of the action. Shakespeare doesn’t make it any easier with the heavy exposition she needs to deliver at the top but it wasn’t until halfway through her speech, when she sat down and embraced Miranda in her arms, that it started to engage.
A striking production, though one that left me emotionally disconnected, this Tempest still scores in its comic moments, touches of humanity, and a final button will that catch in your throat.
Shakespeare in LA
September 7 – November 22, 2104
A Noise Within
3352 East Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107
Tickets: 626-356-3100 or www.anoisewithin.org