Review: THE TEMPEST at Pittsburgh Public is a Dream Within a Dream

By: Feb. 11, 2019

Review: THE TEMPEST at Pittsburgh Public is a Dream Within a Dream

There's something to be said for high concept and big ideas: perhaps the phrase "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" is less applicable than society at large gives it credit for. While on the one hand, Marya Sea Kaminski's fascinating all-female adaptation of The Tempest never entirely coalesces into a single unified show, the handful of parts we are given here (a well-staged, witty semi-rewrite of Tempest, plus a genuinely haunting pair of frame scenes) glisten on their own as jewels, not necessarily puzzle pieces.

I assume most of you know the plot of Shakespeare's last solo-written play The Tempest: once upon a time there was a mysterious island where an enigmatic magician, with the help of his mystical underlings, both grants desires and tests the true mettle of the minds and souls of those who find themselves within his influence. In other words, it's Fantasy Island and Prospero is Ricardo Montalban. It's one of Shakespeare's plot-lightest plays, and most of what happens doesn't "matter" per se. Rather, this is a mood piece, all about fairy-tale atmospherics, stock characters and the power of love and magic. Where director and adapter Kaminski complicates things (for better mostly) is by the addition of a frame story: our Prospero (Tamara Tunie, a local favorite) is a dying doctor, processing her life's end by reimagining herself and all the women in her life- doctors, orderlies, her daughter and her daughter's girlfriend- as Prospero and the other Tempest characters. The opening sequence, in which Prospero/Dying Doctor suffers through a seemingly interminable day of hospital food, awkward family visits and pity before entering into her dream world by climbing out her hospital window, carries a haunting, elegiac tension. This feeling of immensity and clever world-building appears from time to time through the production, but in fits and starts, and when the frame story reappears at the end of the show it feels obligatory, not like something that has been woven through the rest of the production.

Luckily, the rest of the production is still very good. Part of this is due to the cast's uniformly gifted and inspired performances. Janelle Velasquez is perfectly cast as the sprite Ariel, half Disney princess and half pop star, while Shammen McCune's Caliban, clad in hospital scrubs that now look more like a prison uniform, counters her with an earthy, close-to-the-bone performance and physicality that recalls Orange Is the New Black more than any conventional Shakespeare. (The connection there may not be entirely coincidental- though Caliban is undoubtedly a malignant figure, it's hard not to feel sympathy for her incarceration and the bondage she endures.) As Miranda, Kerry Warren plays the Shakespearean ingénue without ever falling into the Disney-princess trap. Her romance with Rad Pereira's Ferdinand, the lost prince shipwrecked on the island, plays well into the ambiguities of the all-female production: though in the "real world" Pereira's character is clearly coded as a same-sex partner or girlfriend to Warren's character (the Prospero-Doctor's daughter), Pereira's Ferdinand is one of the few characters not explicitly coded as female in the Tempest-world. This creates the added element of a seemingly-nonbinary presence in this queer/feminist dream world.

Among the characters coded as explicitly female now, two of the highlights are the clown duo of Jamie Agnello and Bethany Caputo as Trinculo and Stephano respectively. The classic play's drunk dreamers have been reimagined and reinterpreted through what can only be described as a Broad City lens. These moments are aided by director-adapter Kaminski's script, which retains nine parts Shakespeare to ten percent new and contemporary dialogue. The clowns, simply by nature of their purpose in the show, get more of the new dialogue than anyone, and Agnello and Caputo are a perfect tag team, making a meal of every highly physical set piece they are given. There's no pandering and no pop culture referencing- apart from the Broad City aesthetic for the duo- although a gag about a merkin only really makes sense in today's Peak TV era of full frontal simulated nudity.

The element that puts everything else over the top is the sound and music design by Andre Pluess, which plays up the fact that this play has often been referred to as "Shakespeare's musical." Full of songs either in full or in snatches, this particular staging teems with music, including ominous and atmospheric background vocals throughout by Pittsburgh Youth Chorus. Their initial appearance as school children singing for patients in the hospital is simultaneously awkward and ominous: you feel Prospero's frustration at being pandered to, and yet there's something eerie about this small school gathering of unaccompanied female voices singing an old folk song. Sure enough, next time they appear they are island spirits providing musical backdrop to a storm. Lead vocals throughout the show are taken by Janelle Velasquez, whose pure, crystal-clear voice is almost painfully sweet and direct. (Velasquez sounds nothing like 90's dream-pop singer Donna Lewis, but the transportive, ethereal quality their voices have is very much the same.)

The final moments of the play attempt to bridge the gap and reunite the dream world with the real world, and Prospero's gradual transformation- aided by Tunie's immense gravitas but deep reserve of warmth- is touching if never entirely effective. The dream world has been too distinct from the Pittsburgh hospital for too long to transition entirely back, especially only for a final solo tableaux of Prospero in her hospital bed once more. Luckily, those final moments are a showcase for Tunie, refocusing the play around her after two hours of following the more colorful, dynamic characters on the island. Between her opening dumb show and Prospero monologue, and her final moments before blackout, Tunie's alternately grave and almost sly presence recalls that period in the 90s and 2000s when Whoopi Goldberg gave Meryl Streep a run for her money in the "best film actress currently working" debates. (A note to any producers reading this: Hamilton star Hannah Cruz recently mentioned on Instagram how much she'd love to play Susanna in a musical adaptation of Girl, Interrupted; can we Tamara Tunie in the expanded role of Nurse Valerie?)

Leaving the theatre after the performance, I heard a couple two rows behind me talking. "That was incredible," one said, somewhat choked up. "I didn't get it," the other one said, equally choked up, "but... WOW. My God." Perhaps the second one really DID get it after all- though the two halves never fit together as seamlessly as The Wizard of Oz, the dream-logic of the play plasters over the inconsistency between the two worlds and leaves us with unforgettable moments instead. Perhaps, sometimes, the sum of parts can be greater than any whole?

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