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The Tempest

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Though one of William Shakespeare's last plays, The Tempest is also one of his most intelligent and lyrical, blending magic, romance, comedy, and political intrigue. The Pearl Theatre Company brings almost all these elements to their charming, if a bit underpowered, new production.

The magic is provided primarily by director Padraic Lillis, who has instilled this production with a heady dreamlike quality, but also by Celeste Ciulla in her role as Ariel, the sprightly servant to Prospero (Robert Hock), the right duke of Milan who has been banished to a magical island. Rich of voice and light of foot, she brings a presence that is both airy and earthy, effectively bridging the gap between the magic of the island and the mundanity of the land-folk newly shipwrecked there.

They provide the intrigue, with the King of Naples Alonso (Edward Seamon) and his brother Sebastian (Andy Prosky), who is urged by Prospero's brother Antonio (Scott Whitehurst) to usurp the throne. Alonso's son Ferdinand (Sean McCall) falls in love with Prospero's daughter Miranda (Rachel Botchan), and Prospero's slave Caliban (Dan Daily) takes up with the royal family's drunken butler Stephano (Christopher Moore) and jester Trinculo (Dominic Cuskern).

Though occasionally a lot to swallow, Lillis has balanced out the different elements of the play very well, making every scene important and none dull. Toning down the traditionally over-ribald nature of the Stephano/Caliban scenes and injecting real urgency into the assassination subplot are excellent choices other directors might do well to emulate. They could also learn from his fluid direction, which makes this the smoothest and most quickly paced Tempest I've ever seen.

Also worthy of note is choreographer Bil Badolato's stunning wedding dance in the second half of the evening, an eye-grabbing mix of colors and motion the perfectly captures the joys and expectations of a young couple's wedding. Stephen Petrilli's lights seem to be as mysterious and alive as anything else on the island, almost a character of their own, and Linda Cho's costumes - ranging from sky blue cloaks to sharp suits and hats - always keep characters strictly in check.

And of most of the actors, little need be said as they're very fine in their roles. Botchan and McCall are a fetching pair, Prosky and Whitehurst are effective as the show's near-villains, and John Newton, as the aging counselor Gonzalo, is enjoyably dotty in his musings. Ciulla's romping, dancing, and musicianship (she plays the violin at one point) make her, once again, the highlight of a Pearl production.

It is only Hock who keeps the show from being a complete runaway success. His portrayal lacks the specificity that makes the others' performances so fresh and inviting here. He gives a rather generic (and almost clichéd) Shakespeare performance, very well considered and articulated, but a bit too divorced from the action to be very effective; Prospero's famous speech in which he vows to give up his magical art was not significant or moving in Hock's hands, though it was well spoken. His Prospero seldom seems to revel in anything - his powers, his love for his daughter, his rage at his unfair treatment all register on one level. Hock's Prospero, so deprived of an inner spirit to drive his every action, leaves a gaping hole in the play that none of the other talented members of the cast or the production staff is able to completely fill.

Even without the commanding Prospero The Tempest truly needs, Lillis and his cast and crew are able to accomplish a great deal with this production, making quite a bit of every remaining moment. The romance and charm this production of The Tempest provides in abundance aren't enough to substitute for the exciting and soul-stirring heights the play is capable of achieving, but they - and the production - nevertheless remain highly worthy of attention.

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Pearl Theatre Company
The Tempest
Through January 26
Theatre 80, 80 St. Mark’s Place between First and Second Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 598-9802