Fort Worth — William Shakespeare’s The Tempest has nearly everything to cap off a charmed career. It contains elements of nearly all his previous plays: a shipwreck, political intrigue and betrayal, young love, spirits and monsters, murderous intent, an exotic locale, drunken fools, lovely songs, and elaborate masques. It is a formula that few theaters (the ones that still attempt its full version) fail to succeed in executing. Imagine my excitement upon hearing that this glorious swansong would be in the hands of one of the most excellent of Bard purveyors, Trinity Shakespeare Festival.
TSF and its Artistic Director, T.J. Walsh deserve every bit of critical praise (I’ve probably heaped the most) and awards they have received in its five-year run of repertory plays (this year's other play is The Comedy of Errors). Their ability to handle disparate genres with the same cast is just part of their brilliance in interpreting Shakespeare’s works, and their take on The Tempest continues that fine tradition.
The play takes place on an unnamed island where the former Duke of Milan, Prospero (J. Brent Alford) is stranded with his daughter, Miranda (Alyssa Robbins) and holds magical sway over the spirit, Ariel (Kelsey Milbourn), and a witch’s son, Caliban (David Coffee). King Alonso (a regal Alex Chrestopoulos) and his courtly retinue including his son Ferdinand (Bradley Gosnell), and Antonio (Chris Hury), who usurped Prospero’s dukedom happen to be sailing by the island on the way back from a wedding. Prospero instructs Ariel to shipwreck this court of Naples to exact his revenge for being left to die with his daughter in a leaky boat.
Walsh and company transform the tiny stage of the Hays Theatre into an enchanted otherworld to mount The Tempest’s timeless themes of love, justice, forgiveness, freedom, and mercy. Sean Urbantke’s scenic design of nautical and celestial elements of canvas, wooden planking, and maps makes the most of the space while Michael Skinner’s gorgeous lighting emphasizes the theater’s verticality. It speaks well of Walsh’s vision that it does not require a green leaf nor a babbling brook to evoke an island, even an unconventional one.
Many directors play around with setting and time period (from outer space to the Reconstruction South) to emphasize a political reading of the play. Walsh’s interpretation plays it straight but with some ingenious tweaks. Casting the wry-faced and twinkling Coffee as the deformed slave softens Prospero’s cruelty a bit (without losing the sadness) as they mine the long-suffering-servant/master comedy of their relationship. The emphasis of love between Alford’s magician and Milbourn’s airy yet athletic spirit also signals the change to the kind of leader Prospero has become upon the island. In Milan, he was overly concerned with his books in neglect of his duties, and on the island he changes from a vengeful and bitter man to one who recognizes his faults and seeks peace, forgiveness, and a suitable match for his daughter.
A standout moment in a play rife with them occurs during the magical pageant Prospero puts together that includes the goddesses Iris (Delaney Milbourn), Ceres (a resplendent Lydia Mackay), Juno (Liz Mikel), and assorted nymphs and spirits. The dulcet-voiced Mikel sings a song that brings down the house.
Walsh elicits fantastic performances from the vast majority of this stellar cast. Coffee’s song “For the rain it raineth every day” from Twelfth Night starts things off and his tender performance imbues much heart into the show. The funniest parts of the play include the inebriated trio of Jakie Cabe (wonderful as Jacques in Trinity’s 2011 As You Like It) as Trinculo, Richard Haratine (gets impossibly better every year) as Stephano, and Coffee’s Caliban dumbly stumbling, plotting, and putting on airs. Also, Hury as Antonio is a brilliant addition to the TSF family.
The command performance, so to speak, is Alford’s melancholy magician. He gave us a blistering Shylock two years ago in Trinity’s The Merchant of Venice, but it is his Prospero that has more pathos and substance. His “we are such stuff / As dreams are made on” speech and his plea to the audience for the applause “of your good hands” to release him are tearful highlights of the play.
Only Robbins’ Miranda failed to deliver. Her portrayal of Prospero’s daughter is much too slight and quiet (she was the only actor I could not hear) to provide much chemistry for Gosnell’s suave and self-assured Ferdinand.
The rest of the artistic team, especially Aaron Patrick DeClerk’s period costumes, Toby Jaguar Algya’s gorgeous and eerie sound design, and Kelsey Milbourn’s seamless choreography, also deliver.
Irish writer Frank McCourt once wrote that speaking Shakespeare’s words was like having “jewels” in his mouth. The luxuriant pace and delight that the actors take in their lines bears up that sentiment. The Tempest that they and the rest of the TSF team have created the best kind of Bard coda.
» Click here to read Jan Farrington's interview with T.J. Walsh about this season's productions
» Click here to read M. Lance Lusk's review of The Comedy of Errors