Finding Themselves

Self-discovery is the story in a visually strong production of The Tempest.


Politician Turned Sorcerer: Tim Moyer as Prospero.

by Cary M. Mazer

The Tempest

Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival, 2111 Sansom St., through Nov. 29, 569-9700

Never has a Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival production looked so good.

The company has staged The Tempest in the chapter house of a church a block away from the Adrienne on Sansom Street, which it has transformed into a surprisingly good theater venue - intimate, though with a sense of space and volume. Pete Jakubowski's lights skip and dance and glow over Hiroshi Iwasaki's midnight-blue slab of a platform stage. And for once, the actors (costumed in 1830s style by Jenny Fulton) don't look as though they were at a costume party.

Moreover, guest director Eleanor Holdridge has returned to the company, after a directing degree from Yale and an assistant director stint with the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, with a new sense of Shakespeare's visual storytelling. Characters - particularly the exiled-politician-turned-sorcerer Prospero (Tim Moyer) and his servant/spirit Ariel (Kirk Wendell Brown) - linger on stage for several minutes after their scenes are over, their visual presence contrasting with the next scene unfolding. After the intermission, in a flash of lightning, we see Prospero in a magical circle of light; a second later, at the next flash of lightning, we see Ariel instead, the one an alter ego of the other. The various plots and subplots - among the party of shipwrecked Italian nobles, the effort of Prospero's usurper-brother Antonio (Ralph Edmonds) to persuade Sebastian (Tom Cleary) to fratricidally murder Alonso, the King of Naples (Mort Paterson); the efforts of the drunken butler Stephano (Bruce Robinson) and the jester Trinculo (John Zak) to murder Prospero on behalf of Prospero's beleaguered bestial slave Caliban (David Ingram, looking every inch like a Walt Disney satyr) - are skillfully linked by the director in a series of parallel actions and pictures so that they all tell the same story.

So what is that story? Tellingly, when Sebastian is about to plunge his sword into his brother, he hesitates, even before he is magically interrupted; and when Prospero has deliberately laid himself out, pretending to be asleep, under the raised sword of Stephano, Stephano hesitates, even before he is distracted by a magical chest filled with frippery robes and crowns. Evidently, Prospero takes his revenge on his old enemies simply by letting them make their own decisions. He traps them into being, fundamentally, themselves. And, in doing so, he discovers who he, himself, is. In a magical play about people being lost and found, what they find is who they all were all along.

This story would make a lot more sense if we could care more deeply about Prospero, his festering anger, the vengeance that has been steeping in his veins for 14 years, his tyranny over Ariel and Caliban, his complicated relationship with his daughter Miranda. Like the production itself, Moyer looks wonderful in the role. And (along with Brown, Ingram and Michael Toner as the kindly old court counselor Gonzalo) he speaks the verse conspicuously well. But it's up to Prospero to get the story rolling, with a notoriously dicey narrative sequence at the very beginning of the play that teaches us the story and introduces us to the energies that fuel Prospero's connection to it, and which comes close to putting Miranda to sleep several times. But - was it just me? - I just wasn't drawn into Prospero's psyche or made to care about his story.

At the end of the play, when Caliban learns how he had misplaced his rebellious energies in the wrong confederates, Ingram stands to his full height, for the first time, looks Prospero directly in the eye, and speaks in his own, surprisingly civilized, voice. When Ariel is freed from his bondage, Brown quietly slips away even before Prospero has finished his sentence.

At such moments, in a play about self-discovery, these characters discover interesting things about themselves. And at such moments - if not in the story of the play's central character - the production has a strong story to tell.