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BWW Review: CONTEMPORARY THEATER WHIRLS MUSIC AND MAGIC INTO AN ENCHANTING 'TEMPEST'

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The Contemporary Theater Company has crafted a compelling outdoor production that is visually stunning...

BWW Review: CONTEMPORARY THEATER WHIRLS MUSIC AND MAGIC INTO AN ENCHANTING 'TEMPEST'

Since its debut in 1611, Shakespeare's Tempest has been set everywhere from Arctic islands to outer space. The Contemporary Theater Company has crafted a compelling outdoor production that is visually stunning, packed with beautiful musical motifs, and full of powerful performances.

The plot is likely familiar: Prospero, deposed Duke of Milan (MJ Daly) and their daughter Miranda (Maggie Papa) have been marooned on an island whose only inhabitants are his servant, the magical spirit, Ariel (Sophia Pearson) and the monstrous Caliban (Matt Fraza). Through magic, Prospero raises a storm which wrecks a passing ship carrying the brother who usurped him, Antonio (Ryan Sekac) and his ally Alonso, the Queen of Naples (Paula Glen), with her treacherous sister Sebastian (Rebecca Maxfield). Also washing up on shore are Alonso's son, Ferdinand (Tylar Jahumpa), Prospero's ally Gonzalo (Ron Giles), and the Queen's wastrel servants Trinculo (Christine Cauchon) and Stephano (Daria Montaquila). Prospero, with Ariel's help, arranges that Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love, while thwarting the twin plots of Antonio and Sebastian to kill Alonso and of Caliban and the servants to take over the island.

Director Christopher Simpson sets a highly theatrical tone right from the top, beginning the pre-show with soundtrack of sea chanties that lead into the opening storm, where we watch Alonso's ship being wrecked. Ariel (and her companion spirits, Artemis Kassabian and Jazmin Black) pull sailors one-by-one from the group as it struggles across the stage, dissolving into chaos.

This outdoor production uses the entire length of the Contemporary's performance patio. The stage area is a ten-foot-wide linear strip running from their under-construction rehearsal space to the raised stone fire pit where Prospero and Miranda deliver the exposition-heavy first scene--enlivened here with a background of colorful, magical sparks. Daly, as the gender-swapped Prospero, is a delight: by turns a caring parent, a fierce protector, an avenging magician. It is a role demanding considerable subtlety and range, expressing as it does a deep reflexivity about Shakespeare's own craft. Daly's deeply human magus says much with a smile, a touch, a hug.

As her daughter, Maggie Papa brings just the right notes of wide-eyed innocence, and we completely understand why Ferdinand falls for her. Tyler Jahumpa executes an earnest, straightforward Ferdinand that works perfectly against Papa's naif. Matt Fraza plays Caliban not as a monster, but a flawed creature overpowered by emotions: jealousy, revenge, anger. Fraza deftly captures the humanity under the exterior and helps us see the parallel of his revenge arc with Prospero's.

Every production of the Tempest has a slightly different center around which the action orbits, and here, it is the magical Ariel. Sophia Pearson is a delight, offering a mysterious, lithe vision slipping into and out of the action in an ethereal purple costume and arresting band of dark makeup that makes her eyes pop (think Pris in Blade Runner). Director Simpson has made a brilliant addition: flitting about Ariel like tiny echoing moons are two accompanying spirits, Kassabian and Black. Not only does this allow for three-part harmony in her songs and more complex interactions when Ariel executes Prospero's orders, it makes possible a truly inventive moment when Prospero forcibly reminds her, in Scene 2, how he freed her from the witch Sycorax's imprisonment. In a dramatic beat, Prospero waves the two spirts away and pins them to the wall as he reiterates Ariel's debt to his magic. It's a brilliantly executed, highly theatrical moment that is at once a deft interpolation and a knowing gloss of Shakespeare's sensibilities.

No production of the Tempest is complete without the comic relief of the drunken courtiers, played here with delightful, over-the-top gusto and wonderful chemistry by Cauchon and Montaquila. One standout sequence is the moment in Act III when Ariel and the spirits chase them from before Prospero's cell, as they turn from haughty pretenders in fine clothes to hunted scoundrels pursued--literally--by dogs.

Providing incidental music--and accompanying the many embedded songs in the script--is Cynthia Burke, who uses keyboard effects, thunder sheets, wind chimes, and singing bowls to set the emotional tone. Often the music in The Tempest gets short shrift, but one of the strong suits of the Contemporary has always been their attention to soundscapes, and Burke delivers on both ambient scene-setting background and fluid scoring for Shakespeare's lyrics.

Simpson's direction is lucid and inventive. In addition to coaxing terrific performances from the whole cast, his vision elevates the show throughout. One insightful example is the choice to make the magical banquet for Alonso and the courtiers the main Act IV setpiece, crowding the stage with hooded figures clutching branches that echo Prospero's staff while the Juno-Ceres-Iris apparition is played by Ariel and her spirits with rustic charm. It shows how far down the road to revenge Prospero has gone, and makes his break into forgiveness all the more poignant.

This production is a visual feast and a thoughtful interpretation with solid performances that bring this work to life. Fans of Shakespeare -- and those for whom this is a new experience -- will find something to enjoy in this delightful, revelatory staging.

Photo credit: Seth Jacobson Photography

How To Get Tickets

The Contemporary Theater Company production of The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Oct 22-23, 24 (5 pm), 28-30, Nov 5-6, 12-13 at 7 pm on the Outdoor Performance Patio
Tickets: $30 (Discounted tickets at $20 and $10 available for those in need and anyone under 25). Box office: 401-218-0282, Website: http://contemporarytheatercompany.com, Email: info@thecontemporarytheater.com, The Contemporary Theater Company, 321 Main Street, Wakefield, RI 02879


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