Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Who better to turn a full course meal into a resplendent feast than Joe Dowling, back at the Guthrie Theater for the first time since handing the keys as artistic director over to Joe Haj in 2015, to direct The Tempest on the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust Stage. Dowling has not lost his touch, gifting us with a production that fills every inch of the stage with joy. With two breathtaking performances–Regina Marie Williams as Prospera and Tyler Michaels King as Ariel–supported by fifteen other actors who shine in their respective roles, The Tempestis a burst of energy built upon the celebratory tone of our intrepid theater community since returning to the boards after the long shutdown.
Prospera was written by the playwright to be Prospero, the Duke of Milan usurped of his throne by his traitorous brother Antonio and set adrift on a boat, landing, with his three-year-old daughter Miranda, on an unchartered island. The island's sole human inhabitant, a fearsome half man, half monster called Caliban, is subdued by Prospero and bound into slavery. A spirit named Ariel, freed from by Prospero from entrapment in a tree, is indentured to the fallen Duke, casting magic at its master's bidding. It also helps that Prospero has managed to preserve his trove of books, which include recipes for wizardry.
With slave, spirit and sorcery, Prospero and Miranda are able to thrive in their seclusion. Twelve years later, Prospero sees an opportunity to exact revenge upon Antonio and Alonso, King of Naples and Antonio's co-conspirator. Conjuring a brutal storm that brings a ship upon which his enemies are crossing the Mediterranean crashing upon his island, Prospero uses cunning and magic to divide the ship's passengers and crew into small parties, each believing themselves to be the sole survivors of the wreck, and to realize his scheme.
Dowling turns Prospero into Prospera, now Miranda's mother rather than father, as a means of exploring how the play is altered when this central relationship is that of a mother and daughter, rather than a father and daughter. It is an interesting notion. In fact, I have seen three productions of The Tempest in the past four years, and in all three a woman was cast to play the lead. The previous two, Theatre Coup D'Etat's 2018 mounting with Meri Golden and last summer's staging by Great River Shakespeare Festival with Melissa Maxwell, both kept Prospero's name and identified Prospero as Miranda's father. The difference between those two actors, both superb, along with their director's intent, was differing impressions of the father-daughter bond: one more flinty and controlling, the other more empathic and nurturing. Such differences, of course, exist among fathers in our real world, though perhaps less so in Shakespeare's times and in other cultures.
Regina Marie Williams, here as Prospera, does offer a modicum of maternal instinct in her dealings with Miranda–beautifully played by Laakan McHardy, with shades of the pouty insolence and impetuous romanticism common to fifteen year old girls–but overall, she maintains the strength and bearing of a person who, in spite of her change in status, retains the disposition of a royal. That said, Williams is a force of nature as Prospera, her emotions massaged by her sharp intelligence into decisive action, while also inserting shards of sly humor into the character's persona. When Williams is on stage, she is not a usurped royal, but in command.
The other unforgettable performance comes from Tyler Michaels King, physically and emotionally embodying Arie's brash self-confidence. Though indentured to Prospera, this Ariel displays a sense of agency over their life (this Ariel is without gender designation) and reaps great satisfaction from their accomplishments. An actor of uncommon grace, King lights up the stage.
Robert Dorfman as the tippling butler Stephano and Angela Timberman as the jester Trinculo pair up to hilarious effect as these two characters, unmitigatedly comic, are drawn by Caliban into a hair-brained scheme to become lords of the island. Dorfman could give master classes in playing a blindly drunk fool for laughs. Harry Smith's Caliban is more touching than fearsome, conveying the innocence at the root of the so-called monster's circumstances, and fully justifying his anger. As young Ferdinand, son to the King of Naples, John Kroft conveys the rapturous rush of love at first sight, falling head over heels for the beautiful Miranda while offering an endearing gawky boyishness. Smith, Kroft and McHardy, as Miranda, are appearing for the first time on Twin Cities stages (come back soon!).
Other actors who have often appeared before do sterling work, an embarrassment of riches, including Bill McCallum's Sebastian and William Sturdivant's Antonio, a pair of conniving royals; Stephen Yoakam's grieving Alonso; and Michelle O'Neil's stalwart Gonzala. David Darrow, Cat Brindisi, and especially Maya Lagerstam are ferociously fun in a masque–an entertainment set within the play–that evolves into a flashing lit disco ball. Don't ask, just enjoy.
What marvelous tricks Dowling pulls out if his director's hat in staging this Tempest! The set that greets us has the backdrop of a decayed old theater, allowing glimpses of shelves heaped with props behind the arched egresses. Set before this are huge white sails and a relaxed ship deck sporting wicker furniture and a liquor cart. Between the theater at the rear and the stylish trappings up front, we may suspect we entered the wrong playhouse and will be watching Noel Coward instead of William Shakespeare. In due time, though, Prospera's spell works its magic and the ship flies apart in a brilliant conceit of true magic–stage magic, that is.
Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are stupendous–who wouldn't want the chance to wrap Prospera's cape around themself? The gradually eroding garments worn by Stephano and Trinculo as they traipse through the undergrowth while steadily gulping down wine are terrific fun. Actually, the whole thing is terrific fun. That goes for Alexander Dodge's set design, Xavier Pierce's lighting, and Jane Shaw's sound as well–though, it would be good to be able to more clearly hear Prospera's speech above the roar of the storm. Keith Thomas composed music, setting the dialogue to song in several places, that fits with precision into the Bard's verbal rhythms. Maija García is credited as movement director, which must embrace both the full-out dance melded into the show as well as the balletic movements of Ariel and other nymphs and spirits–all so lovely.
The play's message announces itself near the close, when Prospera, its central character, declares in epiphany "The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance," and pivots away from long-sought revenge to the path of forgiveness and beneficence. The statement is potent, urgently needed in a polarized society that seems to offer no forgiveness. Breathe deeply and inhale this moral, but don't fret if you miss it. The festivity that permeates this production is reason enough to put The Tempest on your must-see list. Any meaning sifted out of the merriment is a cherry upon an exquisite frosting.
The Tempest through April 16, 2022, at the Guthrie Theater, Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $15.00 to $134.00. Seniors (65+), College Students (with ID) - $3.00 - $6.00 off per ticket. Public Rush line for unsold seats 15 30 minutes before performance, up to four tickets, $20.00 - $25,00, cash or check only. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: William Shakespeare; Director: Joe Dowling; Music Director & Composer: Keith Thomas; Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward; Lighting Design: Xavier Pierce; Associate Costume Designer: Emily Tappan; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Movement Director: Maija García; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Voice and Dialect Coach: Andrew Wade; Intimacy Coach: Alessandra Bongiardina; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Jason Clusman; Assistant Stage Manager: Kathryn Sam Houkom; Assistant Director: Eshay Brantley;
Cast: Cat Brindisi (Iris/Francisca), David Darrow (Captain/Adrian/Ceres), Robert Dorfman (Stephano), Lamar Jefferson (Boatswain), Tyler Michaels King (Ariel), John Kroft (Ferdinand), Maya Lagerstam (Juno), Mark Mazzarella (mariner/Ariel's musician), Bill McCallum (Sebastian), Laakan McHardy (Miranda), Michelle O'Neil (Gonzala), Harry Smith (Caliban), William Sturdivant (Antonio), Angela Timberman (Trinculo), Sky Turiello (mariner/spirit/nymph), Regina Marie Williams (Prospera), Stephen Yoakam (Alonso).