To begin with, allow me to quote from the elegant program notes of Drew Barr, the director of The Tempest, now at Great Lakes Theater: “The Tempest explores a paradox of human consciousness: awareness of one’s self in the world can prevent one from feeling connected to the world.”
How true. That statement, among many others in the program, goes a long way to explain the magic that resides in this script. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Mr. Barr, awareness of one’s self in the play can prevent the audience from feeling connected to the play.
In other words, it seems that the design and creative team were so caught up in shaping a new concept that they give short shrift to Shakespeare’s story. It is a lovely one involving a shipwreck, brotherly betrayal, young romance, sly comedy and the essence of justice—all overlaid with mysterious sounds and unexpected doings.
Prospero, the man who can make magic, has been banished to an island, along with his daughter, by his bro Antonio (Jonathan Dyrud), who took over as Duke of Milan. Feeling hissy, Prospero conjures up a storm so that Antonio and his sea-bound entourage, including King Alonso (Dougfred Miller) and his son Ferdinand, are swept ashore. Then Prospero’s assistant Ariel, “an airy Spirit,” reports that all the people are safe.
Of course, Ferdinand (Patrick Riley) and Miranda fall in love, as was Prospero’s plan. But there is skullduggery afoot, and Prospero and Ariel use their supernatural wiles to make it all come out dandy.
You will be forgiven if you’re not aware the characters are on an island (in the mind, or otherwise), since the muscular set design by Russell Metheny is long on metal and short on palm fronds. (BTW, are we nearing the end of the scenic design infatuation with industrial scaffolding and huge metal structures? Can a sister get a painted flat up in here?)
That said, Metheney’s structure serves to make the actors on stage dance and distort in the reflections coming off the transparent plastic panels, creating an aura of shifting shapes that enhances the story. Augmented by Rick Martin’s detailed lighting design, the air on stage is alive with sparks and flashes.
D.A. Smith does his best as Prospero, using his considerable chops to give the proceedings some drive and heft. But it doesn’t help that Katie Willmorth as Miranda delivers her lines at an unvarying high volume instead of projecting them with some degree of nuance.
The play makes a screeching U-turn about an hour into the first act when another event, the Stefano & Trinculo Show, takes the stage. Looking and feeling like they dropped in from another another entertainment entirely, the butler and cook from the wrecked ship run into Caliban, Prospero’s hybrid human-fish-tortoise slave, and begin raiding the stores of wine.
At this point, the audience is hungry for some comedy relief and they laugh long and loud at the buffoonery of the three inebriates. Unfortunately, the play is turned on its head and becomes a vaudeville show with a strange and sometimes inexplicable story attached to it like a barnacle.
One has to admire Tom Ford as Stephano. For not only does he act his drunken character broadly (he vomits on the head of Trinculo), he actually is spelunking to find the absolutely lowest common denominator of oafishness. While it often grates, Ford’s effort is noted and we look forward, with some trepidation, to his reports from the depths.
As Trinculo, mugging Dustin Tucker seems like an ambitious apprentice to Tom Ford—playing a pratfalling Eve Harrington to Ford’s slapstick Margo Channing—and Tucker shows every evidence of being a splendid student.
Of course, when attempting to capture a magical sense of mysticism on a strange island, sometimes things can go awry. And so they do when three sparkly 10-foot-tall tubular silver shapes walk on during a betrothal masque to honor Ferdinand and Miranda. These ambulatory phalluses, combined with a couple of the guys in large white plastic wedding dresses, make the latter part of Act Two look like a bizarrely-themed gay marriage gone tragically wrong.
If you’re looking for interesting moments, there are these: As Caliban, J. Todd Adams paints his face like Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight, while contorting his body in ways that seem to defy anatomical logic. And Ryan David O’Byrne skulks somewhat menacingly as Ariel, often bedecked in what looks like a shredded shower curtain for a skirt. You’d think, with all those fantastical skills at his command, he could conjure up a nice chiffon number.
Give credit to GLT for trying something new in this interpretation of The Tempest. But when the story gets camouflaged in a torrent of design flourishes and jarring tonal switchbacks, the audience has to work even harder to find Will’s real magic.
Through April 26 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., , 216-241-6000.