The Tempest

There are two superb presentations currently on display at the O'Reilly Theatre. The Public Theater production of The Tempest, featuring Brian Murray, is a rich and exciting whirlwind of magic, conspiracy and love. Equally as stunning is the exhibit to celebrate the genius of set designer James Noone. Models and detailed drawings of many Noone-designed sets from all areas of theatre - Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional - are available for viewing on the second floor of the O'Reilly before curtain and at intermission. As Noone also designed the set for The Tempest, you can enjoy his work at full scale as well.

The Tempest, widely acknowledged to be Shakespeare's last play, is above all, a romance. There are murder plots and royal jealousy, but love, in several forms, triumphs. After being betrayed by the Duke of Milan, Antonio (Ross Bickell), the Rightful Duke Prospero (Brian Murray) and his daughter Miranda (Lara Hiller) were set to sea and have lived on an island for twelve years, along with a slave, Caliban (Daniel Freedom Stewart). A storm drives a shipload of important characters ashore on Prospero's island, including Antonio, his son Ferdinand (Lucas Hall), Alonso the King of Naples (Edward Conery) and his brother Sebastian (Michael McKenzie), the jester Trinculo (Douglas Harmsen), and butler Stefano (John Ahlin). With magic, well-predicted human nature, and the aid of Ariel (Mark Saturno), a sprite who is Prospero's loyal servant, Prospero enacts a grand scheme of healing old wounds, resurrecting familial love, and liberation.

Douglas Harmsen, Mark Saturno, John Ahlin and Daniel Freedom Stewart
After a rumbling and flashing storm (so real you can feel the tempest), the ship's survivors are separated. Prospero and Miranda shelter young Ferdinand, which leads directly to Miranda and Ferdinand falling in love (to Prospero's pleasure). Trinculo and Stefano, who is drunk from his transport via a wine cask, are joined by Caliban. As they all go on a bender, Trinculo and Stefano decide to exploit Caliban as a monster, and Caliban decides to use the other two to kill Prospero and reclaim his island. The royals all land together; Alonso grieves the loss of his son while Antonio convinces Sebastian to kill the king and take over the throne.

Everyone is guided toward a peaceful resolution through Prospero's magic and Ariel's artful meddling. This is less a plot-driven piece than a family situation comedy-drama. There is great humor and few real enemies in The Tempest and, with a simply gorgeous set, terrific lighting and a very talented cast, the brief journey from gloomy situation to blissful situation is a very enjoyable one.

Having appeared in innumerable productions in London, New York and across the country, Brian Murray (born in South Africa, but now a U.S. citizen) is one of this country's most respected Shakespearean actors. In this production, he brings to Prospero the requisite calm in the midst of a maelstrom. As Murray said in a recent interview, Prospero is "angry at what his brother did to him and his daughter, but it's more involved and intricate than that." Prospero has been seething for twelve years; he's resentful of his betrayal and banishment. But part of the solution is to temper those feelings, or at least keep them beneath the surface, in order to right the wrongs that are in place. Murray underplays Prospero's power in early scenes with other characters, but presents a dynamic and commanding persona when the character is alone. The culminating scene in which Prospero implores the audience to help seal his future is captivating.

Though all of the cast is solidly on point throughout, particularly notable performances are delivered by Daniel Freedom Stewart, an unnerving and scheming Caliban, and Mark Saturno, who shows Ariel's fondness for Prospero as well as cleverness and humor. There is a lot of humor in the piece, with much of it provided by John Ahlin and Douglas Harmsen's dipsomaniac duo of Stephano and Trinculo. Lara Hillier, a high school senior, is delightful as Miranda, refreshingly youthful and undisguised. Her future in theatre looks very promising.

Congratulations to Ted Pappas on yet another superbly directed, steady and quick-paced production. He has for talent in bringing together all the right components for a wonderful evening of theatre. James Noone's set is incredible, from the inset aged wood pinwheel which forms the central acting space, to the huge proscenium of wood and artifacts (including an operating set of wooden gears, evoking thoughts of the machinations going on onstage) through which the actors climb and descend to make entrances, to the large sliding wooden door which opens to reveal a brick labyrinth representing Prospero's cell. It's stunning, it's practical and it illustrates the heart of the piece. Kirk Bookman's lighting and Zach Moore's sound design add even more depth throughout, and costumes by Gabriel Berry are excellent.

The Tempest continues at the O'Reilly for the Pittsburgh Public Theater through April 3. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit or the box office at 621 Penn Avenue.

Photo: Ric Evans

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-- Ann Miner

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