A storm has washed ashore one of Shakespeare’s fine comedies as Laurel Mill Playhouse presents The Tempest as the first show of their 2012/2013 season. With a powerful sorcerer, an air spirit, an island servant, drunk clowns, and more this comedy and exacting ones place in life is sure to keep you entertained for the short while that it does pace the boards of the Playhouse Stage. Following the story of Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, and his exile to an island, he calls upon the powers of the air spirit Ariel to wreck the king’s ship – aboard it his brother who sent him into exile to steal his dukedom. With the ship washed ashore chaos and Shakespearean hilarity ensue.
Costume Designers Maya Wilcox and Kat McKerrow are able to coax from this production the notion of a timeless sea shanty mixed with a feeling of fun and fantasy. These enchanting outfits, particularly the gauzy green gossamer for Ariel and the willowy white with shell and pearl crown for Miranda, flirt with whimsy while still maintaining that notion of a Shakespearean comedy. Wilcox and McKerrow ensure the clowns look ridiculous as best befits two drunks on an island.
While the costumes are of island quality divinity the technical projections seem to have run aground along with King Alonso’s ship. Video Designer Jeffrey L. Gangwisch working with the ideas and visions of Director Joshua McKerrow seem to get lost in the storm with some of these grand ideas that seem out of place with the story. When the wandering party of Alonso and crew come upon an enchantment of visions there are a series of heavy projections, mostly artwork from a time gone by that seem odd and out of place. This happens again when Prospero confronts the spirits over the marriage of his daughter; projections of clouds or ink blots, it’s difficult to tell that conceptualized might have made sense but don’t do the show justice otherwise.
The saving grace of these technical distractions is the initial storm. Lighting Designer David Joyner working with McKerrow create a true tempestuous storm on the stage with swirling blue lights, flickering lightning and sound effects that give the ship the appearance that it’s actually pitching and rolling in the watery turbulence. This is the best designed effect in the entire show and is well worth intense moments of its occurrence at the beginning of the show.
Director Joshua McKerrow has his ups and downs with the production. One of the unique things about McKerrow’s approach to the show is that he turns the traditional mostly male cast into that of a more evenly mixed gendered cast. This works to perfection for characters such as Prospero and Sebastian, having cast strong females to execute the roles; but in other roles, like King Alonso the concept falls short leaving the audience with mixed emotions about the woman who plays this grief stricken king.
McKerrow has a mixed bag with his staging and blocking of the actors as well. In scenes with Caliban and Trinculo the stage space is put to good use. But during the initial encounter with the wandering party as they’ve all stopped for rest, there seems to be aimless milling about and moving for the sake of moving where the actors all appear to be subtly following specific patterns of movement without any purpose behind it.
The acting, however, on the whole is quite stellar. Most of the performers have a strong grasp on what it is to execute Shakespearean wit. The best such example comes from the banter between Sebastian (Caity Brown) and Antonio (Steve Holland). Brown and Holland show good sport in their repartee, Brown showing an especially flippant tongue with an appropriate chip on her shoulder for the character’s mild arrogance. She shows a hint of haughtiness in her discourse with Holland and when the pair plots their plans against Alonso (Penny Martin) their little speeches are ripe with wrong-doing and mischief.
The subtleties of the stereotypical young lovers comes to fruition with Shelby Hylton’s portrayal of Miranda and Matthew Pupora’s portrayal of Ferdinand. Starry eyed and dreamy from the moment they meet, both look upon the other with this wildly naïve innocence, especially Hylton, truly convincing us that this is the first man outside Prospero that she has ever seen. Their sweet adoration toward one another echoes every young lover Shakespeare has ever taken to penning and while their story in this tale is small, it radiates waves of passion and love out to the audience with their simple smiles, soft spoken words, and kind gestures toward one another.
Opposite sweet nubile love is rowdy obnoxious drunkenness embodied to the hilt by Trinculo (Carleigh Jones) and Stephano (Marc Rehr). Jones and Rehr epitomize what it is to be one of Shakespeare’s stock drunks, stumbling and sputtering and bringing all around merriment laced with calamity during their scenes. Watch their costumes closely, especially Trinculo, as you’re in for a jaw-dropping surprise.
The story would fall to tattered ruins without the devious interventions of Ariel (Diana Taggart). Taggart moves like a spirited breeze as she flits about the stage. The joviality of her prankster-like nature is well displayed in the way she bows and flounces her mischievous tongue, the true boisterous spirit of a trickster coming out in her idle conversations with Prospero.
One does not often think of Caliban as a lead character but with Jeffrey L. Gangwisch’s portrayal it is hard not to notice him as such. Gangwisch creates a Shakespearean Smeagol of sorts, constantly crouched, his movements jaunty and spiderlike as he creeps about the stage. His voice is pained but smooth as if it often hurts him to speak, creating a rich element to the character’s agony of being imprisoned on his own island. He never allows his physical height to be taller than that of any of the characters he addresses, showcasing his servitude through his physicality. His spindly limbs and jarred movements create the illusion of some monstrous creation spurned on the island; an intense performance if ever there was one.
Gangwisch’s intensity is matched only by the protagonist, Prospero (Kat McKerrow). Giving a stunning command of her presence on the stage McKerrow masters the embittered character of the exiled sorcerer with a keen sense of cunning and a strong sense of determination. McKerrow adjusts her gait to walk more like a man and holds her idle stances accordingly giving us the strong illusion that she is fact the male character she is portraying. Her speeches craft deep emotions drawing forth from the depths of learned wisdom and long-seeded vengeance. A vivacious performance that grows truly haunting by the final speech.
So remember that they are such stuff as dreams are made on and that it’s a good idea to call to reserve your tickets before this dream ends and you awaken to discover that you’ve missed it entirely.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
The Tempest plays through September 23, 2012 at Laurel Mill Playhouse – 508 Main Street in Laurel, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 617-9906.