Sets and cast make 'The Tempest' a sight to behold Theater review

September 19, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The most magnificent scene in the Shakespeare Theatre's production of "The Tempest" is the masque that Prospero conjures up to celebrate his daughter's betrothal.

Part puppet show, part live-action, it glows with the colorful, jewel-like brilliance of stained glass. And, like stained glass, it is artificial, which is precisely the point.

Living in exile on a desert island, Prospero has honed his mind and his magic, but he has also become increasingly distanced -- mentally as well as physically -- from the rest of humanity. Director Garland Wright's interpretation is not just a tale of Prospero's vengeance and eventual forgiveness, it is also the tale of his return to the human race, his "journey towards wholeness," as psychotherapist Noel Cobb put it in his 1984 book, "Prospero's Island."

That said, the technical aspects of this Washington production -- John Arnone's lavish break-away sets, Howell Binkley's stormy lighting, Adam Wernick's period-influenced music and Susan Hilferty's costumes, which range from spartan to elegant -- are its most stunning attributes. (It is also a far more visually integrated production than the one Wright and Arnone collaborated on at Washington's Arena Stage 13 years ago.)

For the opening storm and shipwreck that Prospero conjures up to force his enemies to his shore, the magician raises his wooden staff, causing lightning to flash and a huge curtain of a sail to descend, in front of which the men on the foundering ship struggle to save their lives. Visually, the scene is echoed much later, when Prospero suddenly calls a halt to the gorgeous betrothal masque, ripping down the masque's theater curtain and sending the performers screaming into the wings.

Both times, Prospero, whose brother, Antonio, usurped his dukedom, is driven by revenge -- the chief emotion, besides tenderness for daughter Miranda, that Ted van Griethuysen conveys as the mighty conjurer. Indeed, when Ana Reeder's gentle Miranda comments on her father's sudden fury, he replies by delivering the famous speech that includes the lines, "We are such stuff/as dreams are made on," in chillingly angry, cynical tones.

Van Griethuysen appears to have more invested in the role than he did in the Shakespeare Theatre's 1989 production. But interesting though it may be to portray Prospero as a man who has put a damper on his humanity, it is hardly a gripping approach. Nor does it help that while van Griethuysen's Prospero learns compassion from the benevolent spirit Ariel (nimbly played by Wallace Acton), he does not seem to learn anything from Ariel's malevolent counterpart, the savage slave Caliban (who, as portrayed by Chad Coleman, evokes more sympathy than master Prospero).

Standouts in the accomplished supporting cast include David Sabin as the jolly, inebriated butler, Stephano, and Floyd King as his nervous, bumbling sidekick, Trinculo; Jack Ryland as Prospero's scheming, evil brother, Antonio; and a Shakespeare Theatre newcomer -- William Hulings, who imbues Miranda's love interest, Ferdinand, with refreshing humor as well as Prince Charming-style grace.

But in the end, the spectacle of this production is apt to stay with you longer than the larger thematic significance of a reclusive genius returning to society or, as this late play is often interpreted, of a master playwright bidding farewell to his art. "Let me live here ever!" Ferdinand delightedly exclaims during the masque. And, though this "Tempest" demonstrates the necessity of forsaking paradise for reality, the beauty of that scene makes it easy to agree with him.

'The Tempest'

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. N.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and most Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, and noon Oct. 1, 15 and 22. Through Oct. 26

Tickets: $13.50-$49.50

Call: 202-393-2700

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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