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Gold Coast 'Tempest' at STC

Clifton Duncan as Caliban in The Tempest, Shakespeare Theater Company, directed by Ethan McSweeny (photo by Scott Suchman)
The usual postmodern approach to Shakespeare's The Tempest is through the lens of master-slave exploitation. In this interpretation Prospero is the European colonizer, expelled from his homeland, who enslaves Caliban and Ariel, the natives of a distant land that has fallen under his control. He feels some remorse about his treatment of these foreigners, eventually setting Ariel free, but only after he has made himself wealthy and powerful on their backs and returns triumphant to his own land. The name of Caliban and parts of the text seem to indicate that Shakespeare had read Montaigne's accounts of cultures in the New World in Essais. One might dismiss this reading of the play, because most of the history of colonialism had yet to occur when the play was written in the early 17th century, but much of the play makes sense according to it. This was one thing that came across subtly in the Shakespeare Theater Company's new production of the play, which opened on Monday night at Sidney Harman Hall.

Ethan McSweeney's production takes place on a sun-bleached spit of sand, littered with driftwood and wrecked boat pieces (sets by Lee Savage), with most of the color palette whitened to a nondescript quality (lighting by Christopher Akerlind, costumes by Jennifer Moeller). The Caliban of Clifton Duncan is not a monster at all, just a man with dark skin and a thick accent that turns the character's lines into a sort of tortured patois, suggesting the Gold Coast of Africa or the Caribbean. When he pops out of a hole in the sand, it looks quite like the other trapdoors that served as exits from the hold of the foundering ship in the opening storm scene, and he is chained to a rock. In a similar way, Sofia Jean Gomez's contralto-ish Ariel is tethered to Prospero by the homespun rope that flies her about the stage to delightful effect (provided by Stu Cox from ZFX, Inc.). Geraint Wyn Davies brings a pleasing mixture of rage, tenderness, guilt, and mystery to Prospero, guiding the feral Miranda of Rachel Mewbron into the arms of Ferdinand (the tall and earnest Avery Glymph), his enemy's son.

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Peter Marks, Ethan McSweeny’s “Tempest” casts a bright, uplifting spell (Washington Post, December 10)
In the supporting cast, the comic antics of Liam Craig, as an odd, fey Trinculo, and Dave Quay, as the drunken Stefano, were the highlight. Other than Ariel's flight, the other spell effects in the play are achieved by a pleasing use of the ensemble, who serve as assistant spirits carrying out Prospero's commands, enchanting the shipwrecked interlopers. This fits in with the whimsical yet slightly scary approach to the two most difficult scenes to carry off in The Tempest: the magical banquet in Act III and the masque scene in Act IV. The banquet table dropped from the ceiling and then disappeared through a trap door, with Ariel's appearance as a harpy transformed into a terrifying black apparition, complete with amplification effects, warning those who wronged Prospero. It would be easy to justify deleting the masque scene, which scholars generally agree was interpolated into the play at a later performance. Its strange divertissement -- a convocation of the three goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno, followed by a ballet of Naiads and Sickle-Men -- does nothing to advance the action. This staging with more and more enormous puppets, floating torsos and masks designed by James Ortiz, was by far the trippiest moment in the production.

This production continues through January 11, at Sidney Harman Hall.

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