Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Tempest
Great River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Great Expectations

Benjamin Boucvalt
Photo by Sydney Swanson
Sound the bugles! Live theater is slowly but surely reawakening in Minnesota. What's more, if Great River Shakespeare Festival is any indication, the work is not showing up groggy from its long pandemic-induced hibernation, but has re-awakened with energy, confidence and heartfelt productions.

Great River Shakespeare Festival produces a summer season in Winona, a charming town nestled between river bluffs and the Mississippi. For its sixteen previous seasons all festival productions were staged indoors at the performing arts center on the campus of Winona State University. Having canceled last year, the feasibility of gathering audiences indoors this summer was uncertain, resulting in an al fresco Season 17.

Two mainstage productions, The Tempest and Great Expectations, are being performed on a newly constructed stage in Levee Park, wedged between the river and downtown business district. A smaller scale production, Every Brilliant Thing, that would have fit in the university theater's black box space is being staged at the central green on campus.

After sixteen months of being tossed about by storms of public health, civil unrest, and politics that left most of us feeling forlorn and stranded with just a few other souls, The Tempest is a fitting selection to kick things off. For twelve years, Prospero, the play's central character, has lived in isolation on an unchartered island where he and his toddler daughter Miranda were shipwrecked after his conniving brother Antonio, abetted by Alonso, King of Naples, usurped his title as Duke of Milan.

Though lacking a dukedom, Prospero holds sway in the realm of magic. This he deploys with the assistance of Ariel, a spirit Prospero rescued from a tree who has since been bound to his service. Also on the island is a half-man, half-monster named Caliban who had been abandoned there. Caliban showed Prospero how to survive on the island and in return Prospero has taught him language and religion. Prospero, however, continues to view Caliban with sharp disdain, while Caliban, feeling himself to be enslaved, is deeply bitter toward his master.

The play opens with Prospero using his power to whip up a horrible gale, aimed at drawing to the island a ship bearing his nefarious brother Antonio as well as Alonso, Alonso's son Ferdinand, brother Sebastian, trusted counselor Gonzala, and their entourage. With their ship destroyed, they are separated by the storm into three groups. Ariel finds Antonio, Alonso, Sebastian and Gonzala, with Antonio grieving over the supposed drowning of his son. Ferdinand, however, is very much alive and is found by Miranda, now emerging into womanhood, who becomes giddily awestruck by her first glimpse of a man who, unlike her father, is young and handsome. While gathering wood, Caliban meets Alonso's drunken butler Stephano and Trinculo, a court fool. Caliban plots with Stephano and Trinculo to murder Prospero and rule over the island, and this trio provides most of the outright comedy in the play.

With its divergent plot lines, The Tempest is one of the most difficult of Shakespeare's plays to classify, though it is most often considered a comedy. Director Beth Gardiner has taken that approach to heart, giving the entire production an aura of good will that diffuses any concerns one may have about such themes as treachery and revenge that are clearly embedded in the narrative. The production merely skirts the edges of deep themes such as the enslavement of Caliban or the price of villainy paid by Antonio and Alonso, and never brings us to the edge of our seats with tones of sorrow or suspense.

Rather, Gardiner unspools a whimsical tale that is easy to absorb sitting comfortably back. This is an altogether good thing, as it is suited to the atmosphere of the outdoor staging and a sense of joy that underscores the very fact that we are, once again, watching live theater—as if conjured up for our delight by Prospero himself. It is a story of great invention, gamely told in a brisk staging that strives to please, and this it most certainly does.

Melissa Maxwell is wonderful as Prospero, expressing the sagacity and long-simmering patience of the character along with his tenderness toward the daughter he has raised in isolation from the world of men. Maxwell is a superb actor who in the past few seasons has become an indispensable member of the Great River company. She tackles the cross-gender casting with aplomb, though I did wonder how she might have portrayed the character as Prospera rather than Prospero, a mother to Miranda, as opposed to a stalwart father figure.

Benjamin Boucvalt is a wonderful if unlikely casting choice as Ariel. Ariel is usually conceived as a wispy, airy presence, while Boucvalt's tall and angular frame exudes strength. He plays the spirit with adroit physicality, visibly restraining his power while acting in accordance of his master Prospero's wishes. Victoria Nassif is splendid as Miranda, conveying devotion to her father while reaching out to embrace the wonders that suddenly appear to her, a strong intelligence lying beneath her innocent nature.

Tarah Flanagan as Stephano and Leah Gabriel as Trinculo are a splendid pair, gleefully milking the comic elements of their misguided plot without over-reaching. The two actors play very well off each other and, as the tippling butler, Flanagan seems to animate, rather than merely wear, her ridiculously flamboyant costume.

As Caliban, Gavin Mueller is perhaps too restrained, as neither the menace he poses to Prospero nor the depth of his rage at his enslavement ever feel fully formed, though once teamed up with Flanagan and Gabriel, he ably contributes to the antic comedy of the work. Christopher Thomas Pow does well as Ferdinand, displaying the loss of equilibrium that accompanies a sudden fall into love.

Vanessa Morosco portrays Antonio as a callow knave who relishes the dark side of every turn. Her final glance at Prospero conveys pained disbelief in the presence of goodness. William Sturdivant embodies the arrogance of one assured of his power as King of Naples, while Brittany Proia is endearing as Gonzala, an unflinching optimist. It is notable that, with several cases of cross-gender casting in the play, only the gender of this character, usually named as the male Gonzalo, has been changed to align with the actor. This works perfectly well, though if there was a particular point being made I did not catch it.

Rebecca Bernstein's costume designs suit each character's persona, including Stephano's hilarious garb, a dazzling harlequin outfit for Trinculo, Prospero's enchanting yellow sorcerer's robe, and flowing silks that give Ariel an ethereal quality to counter actor Boucvalt's imposing physical presence. Only the costuming for Caliban feels amiss, overdoing the monster at the expense of the man. R. Eric Stone's wood planked stage, incorporating a ramp, ledges and towers to differentiate locations, serves the production very well. Scott O'Brien provides stirring music and sound to accompany the production, while lighting is provided by the sun itself, still shining overhead on early evenings in July.

If you go—and I heartily recommend it—arrive half an hour or so early to see a portion of the festival apprentice program's Romeo and Juliet, broken up into episodes as a curtain raiser before each mainstage show. While not nearly the same as seeing a full production, the caliber of acting nurtured in these young actors is most impressive. The play in its entirety will be performed at a matinee on July 31.

While this Great River Shakespeare Festival mounting of The Tempest does not recapture the genius of their 2009 production, it is a delightful staging that constantly engages. As we emerge from the tempest all of us have endured, The Tempest is a wonderful way to be experience anew the joy and wonder of theater.

Season 17 of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through August 1, 2021. The Tempest is performed on the Levee Stage at Levee Park in downtown Winona MN. Bring your own folding chair, along with sunscreen (some seating areas are shaded, but the sun may shift in the course of the performance). Tickets: $20.00 - $70.00. For schedule of performances and other event, and for tickets, call 507-474-7900 or visit

Playwright: William Shakespeare; Director: Beth Gardiner; Scenic Design: R. Eric Stone; Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein; Costume Design Assistant: Kayli Warner; Composer and Sound Design: Scott O'Brien; Hair and Makeup Designer: Mary Capers; Props Designer: Ivy Treccani; Text Coach: Victoria Teague; Intimacy Director: Tonia Sina; Fight Choreographer/Captain: Benjamin Boucvalt; Masque Choreographer: Tarah Flanagan; Audio Engineers: Rachel Foster, Cassidy Sanford; Audio Supervisor and Sound Fellow: Nathaniel Brown; Hair and Makeup Fellow: Maia Soltis; Stage Manager: Jamie J. Kranz; Assistant Stage Manager: Carly Valdez.

Cast: Benjamin Boucvalt (Ariel), Alex Campbell (Sebastian), Michael Fitzpatrick (boatswain voice-over), Tarah Flanagan (Stephano), Leah Gabriel (Trinculo), Melissa Maxwell (Prospero), Vanessa Morosco (Antonio), Gavin Mueller (Caliban), Victoria Nassif (Miranda), Christopher Thomas Pow (Ferdinand), Brittany Proia (Gonzala), William Sturdivant (Alonso), Lauren Winder (Adrian).