BSF fails to unleash the magic of `The Tempest'

TheaterReview

July 22, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

For all of the wizard Prospero's sweeping, sky-colored robe, his magic wand and book of spells, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest is fatally short on sorcery - especially the garden-variety sort that can keep an audience spellbound through five acts.

Instead, audience members may feel as though they are visiting the Land of Tiny Emotions. Everything is remote, encapsulated, cut off. Instead of a gale of epic proportions, director Laura Hackman gives us a drizzle.

And that's a shame, because The Tempest is a charmer. The final play for which Shakespeare is the sole author, it is full of shipwrecks, monsters, spirits and mythical beings. It is about love, betrayal, redemption and transformation.

It also is about letting go. Not only is The Tempest a story about a father relinquishing his daughter to a grown-up romance, it also is the story of an aging artist bidding farewell to his powers of invention and enchantment.

But The Tempest is not a melancholy play. At turns funny and poignant, it is a celebration of everything that Shakespeare loved, and it contains some of the most achingly exquisite passages ever written. The play is like a sunset, in which all the colors are super-saturated and every object stands out distinct.

At least, that's the way it's supposed to be.

In this production, things go wrong before a syllable is spoken. The play begins with a shipwreck, and actors in water slickers swing around the stage on ropes and jump off the deck into the grass. But the actors lack the urgency and desperation of men who fear for their lives. Instead, they look like children playing on a jungle gym.

This scene also features spirits of the wind and waves, and in this production, each one has a cone attached to her face. Perhaps this is supposed to make them appear unworldly. In reality, they bear an unfortunate resemblance to Pinocchio's sisters.

It drags on too long - not that matters improve greatly when the actors begin to speak.

Physically, actor Lewis Shaw is an ideal Prospero. Tall, broad-shouldered and with flowing white hair, he is a powerful, imposing figure. Prospero undergoes perhaps the most crucial transformation of any character in the play, but Shaw exhibits limited emotional range. Absent are the magician's grief and rage, his wistfulness and moments of joy, that would help us feel the full measure of what he is surrendering.

Equally troubling is the casting of Binnie Ritchie Holum as Ariel. This character and that of Caliban are polar opposites. The former represents pure intellect and imagination, while the latter stands in for humanity's animal drives. In Freudian terms, they are the ego and the id.

Holum clearly has a dance background, and that is appropriate for Ariel. But her portrayal is far too sensual for this creature of air and mist, who admits that (s)he is not human, and therefore cannot feel human emotions. Holum also is responsible for the choreography, and, at times, the balletic lifts that she executes with Shaw come perilously close to romantic embraces - a serious misreading of that relationship.

Only Tara Garwood as Miranda delivers a fully satisfying, nuanced performance. Her ingenue is spirited and energetic, with a capacity for rapture that never is cloying.

The Shakespeare Festival is held in the meadow of Evergreen House, and an outdoor setting greatly enhances this play. When the sun goes down and the shadows lengthen, when the leaves rustle and the crickets chirp, it is easy to believe in powerful, unseen forces.

As Shakespeare knew only too well, the human imagination is one of those forces. If only there were a bit more of it on display.

The Tempest

When: 10:30 a.m. Thursday; 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Evergreen House, 4545 N. Charles St.

Admission: $15-$20; lawn seating

Call: 410-366-8596 or visit www.baltimoreshakespeare.org

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