April 16th, 2012

The Tempest: A Classical Theatre Company Production

There’s a bit of magic happening at the Classical Theatre Company.  Also some heavy rain, lightning, murder plots, romance, vengeance and environmental disasters.  But mostly just magic.  Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” filled with bold choices and modern themes, is the latest success in a long line of stirring productions by the talented folks at the Classical Theatre Company.

Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, has been stranded on an island with his daughter Miranda for many years, having been conspired against by his brother Antonio and Alonso, the King of Naples.  Prospero is attended on the island by two reluctant servants: the monstrous Caliban and the spirit Ariel.  Seeking both revenge and release from imprisonment on the island, Prospero uses his learned magical powers to raise a storm which shipwrecks the vessel carrying Antonio, Alonso, Ferdinand (Alonso’s son) and members of their court.

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With all characters assembled on the island, revenge plots run rampant.  Caliban pairs up with Stephano and Trinculo to seek revenge on Prospero, whom he considered an unjust master.  Antonio talks the King’s brother Sebastian into attempting murder on King Alonso, as they assume that Prince Ferdinand is dead and Sebastian could inherit the throne.  Meanwhile, Ferdinand and Miranda keep busy falling in love, and Prospero is occupied with the spirit Ariel and their efforts to manipulate the senses and intentions of nearly everyone on the island.

In classic Shakespearean fashion, all characters are drawn together at the end for a big reveal.  Plots are exposed, wrongs are forgiven, rightful positions and crowns are restored and everyone is finally set free from their various modes of bondage.  It’s not quite as obvious as a happily ever after, but it’s a simple sense that justice has been done and as Prospero tells us in his final speech, “As you from crimes would pardoned be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

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Likely Shakespeare’s last full-length play, “The Tempest” involves a marked move away from the bawdy humor generally found in his work.  Dealing instead with universal themes of enslavement and personal excess, “The Tempest” can, if mishandled, come across as a heavy or irrelevant play.  Fortunately, this is the Classical Theatre Company we’re talking about here, and no one could be more capable of tapping into the inherent style and modern applicability of this script than director John Johnston and his cast of intuitive actors.

John Johnston, scenic designer Jodi Bobrovsky and dramaturg Martine Kei Green-Rogers manage to address a modern issue before the first line of dialogue is ever spoken, by setting their production of “The Tempest” not on a traditional island, but on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating mess of plastic pollution estimated to be twice the size of Texas.  With the bold choice of setting, the audience is immediately faced with the thematic element of selfishness, greed and excess.  The stage, covered from floor to ceiling in plastic wrap and bottles, is simultaneously ominous and whimsical.

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While every actor in this production tackles the weighty words of Shakespeare with commendable grace, several stand-out performances warrant specific accolades.  Phillip Lehl, a familiar face from CTC’s previous production, “Uncle Vanya”, is powerful and intuitive as Prospero.  His prolonged speeches are perfectly paced and approachable even for the most Shakespeare illiterate audience member.   In the role of the Ariel, Blair Knowles is the picture of servitude as she does Prospero’s bidding.  Tortured and riveting, she slinks and dances across the stage in a whirl of dizzying movement, while managing to keep the voice of her character every bit as assertive and mysterious as one would expect of an enslaved spirit.  Kregg Dailey creates a lingering magic as the oppressed Caliban, as he weaves a complexity into the character that makes him as pitiable as he is repulsive.

The cast of “The Tempest” is relatively small compared with other Shakespearean plays and the choice to have some actors play multiple roles adds to the intimate feeling of this production.  Dylan Godwin appears in turn as both Gonzalo, the King’s advisor, as well as Stephano, the lolling drunkard who plots Prospero’s death at Caliban’s behest.  As Gonzalo, Mr. Godwin taps into the genuine nature of one of the few ethical characters in the play, and as Stephano, he provides the audience with a refreshing blast of physical comedy.  Meanwhile, in a remarkably unique double casting role, Jacqui Grady plays both Miranda, the innocent daughter of Prospero, and Trinculo, the (male) drinking buddy of Stephano.  Ms. Grady is to be commended for her skill in tackling two such antithetical characters, as she manages to transition from wide-eyed idealist to inebriated clown throughout the play, without a single lapse in either energy or credibility.

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Matthew Keenan (Ferdinand) is a classic prince, bearing his lot with good grace and winning the hearts of women both onstage and off with dazzling charm.  Zach Bruton (Sebastian) and Xzavien Hollins (Antonio) are both broad and intriguing as the deceptive characters who plot to murder a king and overtake his throne.  Ted Doolittle (Alonso) is appropriately regal and eventually penitent as the unlawful usurper of Prospero.

As “The Tempest” brings the Classical Theatre Company’s season to a close, we are left with a fond appreciation for the consistent quality and passion they bring to the Houston theatre scene, as well as a burning impatience to see what will come next from this unique and daring company. 

The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Produced by Classical Theatre Company
Directed by John Johnston
At Obsidian Art Space
April 12-29, 2012

Tickets — $18.00 General Admission

(Photo Credit: Jan Saenz)

— Kerri

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