O Brave New City that has Such Talent in’t
One of the occupational hazards of a theatre critic is seeing the same plays over and over again. This is especially true of Shakespeare’s more popular plays, particularly the romances, whose settings are the outdoors and are regularly staged at summer Shakespeare Festivals. Usually, the productions are draped in concepts and gimmicks but rarely do I go to a production, where the language occupies center stage and successfully carries the play. This weekend, New City Theatre, opened The Tempest, which should be the standard, by which all other Shakespeare plays should be measured. All the actors were of the highest vocal caliber, and used the text expertly to communicate to the audience.
The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s later plays and has some of his most sophisticated language. What little plot there is, is not terribly original; Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, (played adeptly by Mary Ewald) has been shipwrecked on an island for 15 years with his daughter, who was three at the time of the catastrophe. Having been a very scholarly prince rather than a Machiavellian one, once he is shipwrecked, he uses the opportunity to study magic.
Living with Prospero in semi-bondage are two “servants: ” Ariel, an airy spirit, played exquisitely by Elena Kazanjian, and Caliban, a semi savage, played suitably repulsively by Peter Crook. Formerly confined to cages by the previous occupant of the island, a witch, they are now at Prospero’s beck and call and long for their own freedom.
As the play opens, a huge storm, is threatening a ship doomed to be shipwrecked. Predictably, the travelers in the ship are: Prospero’s brother, Antonio, the usurping Duke, as well as the King and Crown Prince of Naples, with courtiers and servants. Various people get separated as they wash up on the island. True to the meta-script for romances, our handsome Crown Prince, Ferdinand, falls in love with Propero’s daughter, Miranda, enabling Prospero to re-gain his Dukedom.
By using the magic he has learned on the island, Prospero had caused the storm, and much of the ensuing mayhem; but his plotting becomes Prospero’s swan song to the arts of magic. In the text Shakespeare questions reality vs illusion, the existence of the supernatural vs the natural, servitude vs freedom, as well as authority vs. rebellion. Caliban wants his full freedom and plots to kill Prospero, much like Prospero’s brother, Antonio, plotted to overthrow him. Although the plot and the sub-plots are thin, the language itself, especially with this highly competent cast, conveys action and vitality.
This is not to say that this production could just as easily be a radio play; the visual and sound effects were simple, yet effective and being low-budget, highly creative. Magnificently directed by John Kazanjian, in the small New City space on 18th and Union, the production seemed to be like the early productions of Renaissance plays, in the couryyards of inns, before they moved into theatres.
Using real sand, a few trees and driftwood, set and costume designer Nina Moser, conjured up the idea of a desolate island. The costumes, especially for Caliban were appropriate for people, who had been shipwrecked on an island,for 15 years. Cleverly Ms. Moser used earth tones which blended in well with the brick wall of the space. A lovely green shade was used to costume Ariel and the other Sprites, which made them look other-worldly and conveyed the color of the sea.
Being technically simple by 21st century standards, it was not without spectacular lighting and sound effects for the storm and magic scenes, without overwhelming the audience in the small space. Although music permeates all of Shakespeare’s plays, especially the romances, The Tempest has more than its share; the music under the direction of Nancy Brasseale was lovely and bewitching. Original compositions by Mary Ewald, Eric Whitacre and Brasseale, gave the production a charming enchanting quality. The ethereal singing sprites Nancy Brasseale and Piper Carafa-Olson along with Elena Kazanjian were sublime. ( even the pre-show music in the lobby and during intermission was extremely pleasant)
Given that almost every production these days uses women playing men, it seems almost unnecessary to say that there was “cross-gender” casting, but there was. What is unique about this production is that Mary Ewald and Peter Crook alternate the roles of Prospero and Caliban. The night I saw it, Ewald played Prospero and Crook played Caliban. Both were so excellent that I wanted to see it again…and bring all my friends. Particularly noteworthy, was Ewald’s ability to clearly and dramatically communicate the lengthy verbal exposition in the beginning of the play.
If you only see one Shakespeare production this year, let it be this one. You will find as I did that the actors spoke the speech trippingly on the tongue, there were no town–criers in this show. And no gimmicks neither.
(N.B. Get your tickets now. There are only 49 seats and it was sold out on opening weekend.)
The Tempest. New City Theatre. 1406-18th Ave . Seattle 98122 (Corner of E. Union and 18th Ave), South Capitol Hill/Central District) Wed-Sat. thru April 30, www.NewCity.org (check website for dates for alternating roles of Caliban/Prospero) Street Parking available