Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through June 10, 2012
by Shera Cohen
A tempest is a violent windstorm, frequently accompanied by rain. (Webster) Save for precipitation, a tempest is exactly what the Hartford Stage audience experiences at Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The play commences before the first words are said, as the staging speaks volumes. In many ways, the set and the trappings are equal in importance to the story’s plot.
Spectacle abounds through lighting, sound, and a spinning circular set. The actors become the ship with their bodies tossed furiously, others hang from mastheads, and all shriek their lines to the music of lightning cracks. This is only the first three minutes of the play! Director Darko Tresnjak paints an exhilarating start to one of the Bard’s best works.
With mystical powers inherited from over a decade of living on his prison island, former duke Prospero stirs the tempest on his countrymen’s ship. One man aboard is his jealous brother, who banished Prospero and his young daughter. Themes of justice, power, romance, and spirits weave throughout. The key issue is that of physical and spiritual freedom.
Daniel Davis plays Prospero with love and forgiveness. Sara Topham’s endows Miranda with naiveté. Shirine Babb, as the sprite Ariel, is an actress to watch in the future. In body, voice, and movement Babb dons Ariel with intelligence and warmth. Ben Cole portrays the antithesis of Ariel, as the not-quite human Caliban. Assuredly, a difficult character to become, Cole adds a little too much of the grotesque. Michael Spencer-Davis and Bruce Turk (clowns) make their sometimes too-long scenes very humorous.
At the play’s core are decisions – those made by the director and by the playwright. Tresnjak has staged the island awash with blue (water) and steps (land) with Shakespeare’s handwriting as graffiti from floor to ceiling. The island people wear blue with white graffiti. Fairy gymnasts flutter, picture frame backdrops open, and a quasi-cirque de wedding takes place.
This ethereal concept works extremely well. The visual and aural senses are so exquisite that, at some points, the text is supplanted. That said, it is obvious that the spectacle and awe fuses power and life into 500 year old manuscripts. Shakespeare is truly for everyone.