“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark now I hear them, ding-dong bell.”
Although not produced as often as some of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, The Tempest is as thematically rich and complex as any of them, perhaps more so. Widely regarded as his last major work and, therefore, his swan song to the theater and farewell to public life, its language is elegiac, suffused with a soft melancholy.
Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, has been marooned on a mysterious tropical island with his daughter Miranda, where he subdues its savage and deformed original inhabitant Caliban, and rules by magic with the help of his servant, the “airy spirit” Ariel. In the first act fate and Prospero’s art have brought those who betrayed him, his brother Sebastian and Alonso, the King of Naples, shipwrecked to the island and into his power.
But the tempest that drives Alonso, Sebastian, and their retinue onto the island is not a real one, but a magical illusion created by Prospero, which will nevertheless have a real-world result in the restoration of his dukedom and the union of his daughter Miranda and Alonso’s son Ferdinand, and thereby, Milan and Naples. Presumably, the combination will eventually be justly ruled by a flesh and blood prince created by the union Prospero engineers between the young lovers.
The Tempest’s delicate interplay between illusion and the real world, and magic and reality, develops into a treatise on the creative process, both artistic and divine, and it is tempting to identify the character of Prospero with Shakespeare, who speaks to the audience through the play in a deeply personal way.
Whew – a daunting task for an actor. Fortunately, the job has been entrusted to the GRSF troupe’s dean, Jonathan Gillard Daly, who is more than equal to it as usual. His Prospero is many-faceted, as required to portray doting father, dreaming visionary, and fiery-eyed prophet. It is true of most of the GRSF players that they are not just accomplished, but accomplished Shakespearian actors and actresses, and Daly stands out in this regard. Players having an expertise in the workings of Shakespeare’s drama and the somewhat arcane language of renaissance England make the plays far more accessible and enjoyable to audiences who haven’t studied the bard. It is often easier to get the sense of a difficult passage of Shakespeare by watching it performed by an experienced actor like Daly, than by reading it. Conversely, Shakespeare performed by those who are novices is what gives him a name for denseness and difficulty.
Unfortunately there are not many female roles in the Tempest, but Tarah Flanagan makes the most of Ariel, She is Prospero’s magical servant and partner in the creation of magic and illusion, but she is not real and yearns for her freedom. In director Alec Wild’s conception, Ariel presides high over the production in a tower which is also a cage she cannot leave. The usual sparse, single set employed by GRSF is especially effective in The Tempest; together with the nymphs and sprites that alternately come alive and then melt back into the scenery it creates the eerie sense of magic and illusion so necessary to this production far better than any multi-million-dollar movie set I can imagine. Same goes for the costuming, which is typically excellent of Margaret Weedon’s work. I say, if this is what these people can accomplish on a cut budget, cut it again! (Just kidding.)
Christopher Gerson as Caliban gives Prospero/Daly a a good run for the money as star of the show, and king of the island. He is a dark force who must be kept under strict control, playing the part on all fours and snorting between his lines like a pig, a marvelously agile one who combines human and animal properties amazingly. Wild has him stand upright only once, at the end of Act 5 when he acknowledges Prospero’s dominion and pledges to seek grace (a weird parallel to the latter’s intention to return to Milan and devote every third thought to his grave). Those who like to interpret this play as somehow a screed against colonialism might detect a hint of an Irish accent in Gerson’s delivery.
The requisite fools, Doug Scholz-Carlson as Trinculo and Michael Fitzpatrick as Stephano are hilariously foolish, making the most of two of the very best of Shakespeare’s clowns. And the young lovers, Nicole Rodenburg/Miranda, and Ferdinand/Nick Demaris are as fresh and winsome as you could hope for.
As always with GRSF, The Tempest combines great direction of a fabulous troupe of actors, both old favorites and newcomers, with a meticulous attention to all the details of costumes, sets, and music. Do not miss this show.