BWW Reviews: Do You Believe in Magic? THE TEMPEST at Portland Shakespeare Project
I'm generally annoyed by plays that require lots of stagecraft to get their point across. If you've got good actors, they can get you to believe in whatever you're supposed to believe in, regardless of whether it actually appears on the stage. Think of Peter Pan, in which Tinkerbell appears only as a bright light, or the musical Titanic, in which we we watch the passengers preparing to board the ship - but we never actually see the ship. Theater is about illusion and the suspension of disbelief. If the actors believe in what they're saying, the audience follows along.
The Tempest is all about magic. Prospero and his daughter have been marooned on an island for twelve years, and during that time Prospero has taken charge of a sprite named Ariel. Between them they arrange a shipwreck, a romance, and a lot of other mischief, all in the name of Prospero getting back at his enemies and Ariel regaining freedom. In this production, Prospero is a woman (Prospera) and several of the other roles normally played by women are played by men, which makes the relationships more interesting and believable...but the magic never arrives.
Linda Alper's Prospera isn't angry enough. She enumerates the wrongs done to her by her sister, the king, and a number of others, and uses her talents to bring about a storm, wrecking the ship carrying all of her enemies and leaving them at her mercy. But even as she's listing all of their sins, she seems more tired and fed up than truly angry, not nearly emotional enough to cause all this craziness. Alper is a gifted acress who has the tragicomic talent of someone like Andrea Martin, and I've loved her in other roles, but she doesn't have the fire here. The entire production seems far too calm, and director Michael Mendelson only gets the energy going when the drunkards Stephano and Trinculo are plotting to kill Prospera, abetted by the native Caliban, who's been under Prospera's thumb for quite a while. Sam Dinkowitz and Nathan Dunkin are way over the top as Stephano and Trinculo, but their broadness is appreciated; they alone seem to understand they're playing for an audience.
The remainder of the cast do what they can with their minor roles, but none really seem to build the emotions necessary to break through the low-key nature of the show. As Ariel, Mike Dunay runs on and off stage as a sprite should, dancing about and making merry; he manages to make a strong connection with Alper, and we're sad when he finally leaves the stage. And special mention has to go to Matthew Kerrigan as Caliban, who's dressed like a refugee from an '80s hair metal video and walks with his legs spread throughout the show. It's an amazing display of focus and talent, and he deserves a role that takes true advantage of his skills.
Nathan Crone's set reminded me (in a positive way) of The Flintstones, a cartoonish, primitive landscape designed to give sprites and magicians a jumping-off point. Kristeen Willis Crosser lights the set beautifully, setting mood in a way that heightens the sense of something magic to come. Likewise, Sharath Patel's sounds and music are just right, and Sarah Gahagan's distressed finery suits the characters well, particularly Ariel's indescribable outfit.
All the elements were there: a talented cast, a fine crew, a group of gifted designers, and an audience ready for magic. Yet somehow the magic didn't appear this time. And that is the reality of theater.