Friday, August 1, 2014

Prospero is still crabbed, but almost likable after all, in HART's production of "The Tempest"

"The Tempest," an embraceable masterpiece with a difficult protagonist, took the stage of the amphitheater at White River State Park Thursday night. The annual Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre production had both delicacy and vigor, evanescence and earthiness under the direction of Courtney Sale.

With bold trims tightening an already brief play in the Shakespeare canon, the show missed nothing essential. Beyond that, it infused the relationship of Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, with a richness and vitality sometimes buried in the text. For me, this was the most revelatory aspect of HART's version.

Robert Neal's Prospero had the requisite lordliness of the deposed Duke of Milan on his enchanted island. The isolation in which Prospero imposes his restorative wizardry is lent tropical vagueness in Rob Koharchik's bamboo-intensive scenic design. That feeling is carried out with magical suggestiveness by the rest of the design team. Todd M. Reischman's percussion-saturated soundtrack rooted the action in a primitive environment where civilized strife must play out.

The text makes evident that Prospero dotes on Miranda, but here their rapport is mutually enlivened and sustained. Zoe Turner's portrayal gets much of the credit for this. Her first speech — made more powerful than ever by Sale's elimination of all dialogue in the storm scene that precedes it — has Miranda not simply deploring the tempest she's just witnessed, but rebuking her father for his apparent cruelty.
Robert Neal as Prospero, Zoe Turner as Miranda.

An upbringing in the wild nurtures wildness, of which Miranda has more than a little. It animates the father-daughter bond from first to last. In romantic matters, this Miranda is fully equal to the zest of Ross Percell's ardent Ferdinand; naivete has never looked so ready to burst into maturity.

The father-daughter relationship helps to humble Prospero beyond his gratitude for the extraordinary service the sprite Ariel provides to advance his plan. I have problems with the charity the wizard supposedly exemplifies at the end, but it was beautifully staged, with the formality of a tableau. Neal's delivery of the epilogue was both grave and humane.

Phebe Taylor made for a graceful Ariel — nimble, self-possessed, and so much at one with the diaphanous azure costume Guy Clark designed for her that it seemed a second skin. The shipwrecked bulk of the cast whom she manipulates under Prospero's direction skillfully balanced the characters' blend of willfulness and puppet-like control. Alonso, the King of Naples who engineered Prospero's replacement in Milan by his wily brother Antonio, was given fundamental dignity by Adam O. Crowe, the resonance and superb diction of whose voice is always a delight.

Mark Goetzinger put his seasoned shrewdness capably to work as Antonio, reflexively villainous: I relished his hearty laughter when Antonio's asked if his scheme ever troubled his conscience.  Scot Greenwell as Sebastian, Alonso's brother, was his fitting partner in amorality and sarcasm.

Most of the latter quality was directed at the idealistic Gonzalo, the "honest old councilor" played by Charles Goad. Gonzalo's speech describing his ideal commonwealth seemed far from fatuous as Goad spoke it Thursday night; it could have made anyone part-Utopian, despite the well-aimed derisiveness of Antonio and Sebastian.

The dirty little secret of Shakespearean clowns is that they can't be overplayed. You either relish this kind of foolery or it makes your skin crawl. HART's band of ninnies — and we can include the haplessly victimized Caliban in this group — is outstanding. Chris Hatch is an acrobatic Trinculo of outsize physicality, virtuosic in his cleverly staged entanglement with Caliban: When the sozzled butler Stephano comes across this push-me, pull-you pair, the merry confusion is unrestrained.

Ryan Artzberger's range comprises both caricature (misapplied as Iago in HART's 2012 "Othello") and pathos (incomparably moving as Indiana Repertory Theatre's Scrooge). Across that range, he astonished consistently as the painted, crouching slave Caliban. Ben Tebbe flawlessly rendered the risibly flawed Stephano, the kind of out-of-control drunk given to delusions of grandeur.

Genuine grandeur is no stranger to this production. Neither is an authentic, visually detailed feeling for magic, nor a rambunctious sense of fun. This trim "Tempest" has everything it needs for its splendid setting and this distinguished series.

[Photo credit: Julie Curry]