Review: ‘The Tempest’ at The Baltimore Annex Theater

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It’s only the end of January and, with its production of The Tempest, The Baltimore Annex Theater (“Annex”) has already set a very high bar for my 2017 theater viewing. Founding Artistic Director Evan Moritz says his plan to stage The Tempest “began germinating” five years ago.  Whatever occurred during the intervening half-decade to help that seed take root and grow, it was well worth the wait. Having decided that now is the time to direct The Tempest, Moritz – along with Assistant Director E’Tona Ford and a talented collection of designers and actors – has cultivated an outstanding production.

The Tempest is one of the last plays written by William Shakespeare; reportedly, it’s the last one he wrote solo. I think it’s one of his best. With a sense of humor and beautiful (oft-quoted) language, the Bard tells a story of magic, love, and intrigue.

Aladrian Wetzel (Prospero), Betse Lyons (Antonio), Molly Marguiles (Stephano), and Mike Ziccardi (Gonzalo). Photo by Dave Iden.

Scenic Designer Douglas Johnson has created an immersive physical environment for this production. The theater is dominated by a large oval table that stretches from one end of the room to the other. The table is surrounded by seats for the audience, like in a banquet hall. [Pro Tip: Don’t leave any of your belongings on the tabletop. The table is the stage and the actors use Every. Single. Inch. of it.] On the walls opposite the ends of the table are large projection screens, each with a circular viewing surface. Overhead hang several circular hoops onto which long strips of fabric have been attached, creating a loose web of cloth beneath the ceiling, which then drapes down the walls. The effect is suggestive of a net of dream-catchers.

From the first moments of the play, the collective work of Johnson, Sound Designer Rjyan Kidwell, and Projections Designer Tom Boram are in full effect. In the tempest/shipwreck scene, for example – Boram’s projections show billowing fabric that roils like the sea. The lights are a stormy blue and black, giving a subtle glow to parts of the scene, and Kidwell’s electro-ambient score amplifies the tumultuous experience. The atmospheric elements and the closeness of the stage make the scene feel immediate and evocative. Looking up, as if below decks, at the actors pitching back and forth in unison as the powerful Prospero careens them toward his island makes an impact that watching it from risers across the room could not match.

As the team above created a great space for the cast to work, Costume Designer Susan Maccorkle created beautiful clothes for them to wear. Straight-up, Maccorkle is a garment-creating goddess. I’ve been to theaters with immense budgets and their costumes were no better than these. In addition to making historically-accurate brocade doublets, sueded jerkins, and round hose breeches, Maccorkle outfitted both sorcerer and spirits in imaginative, magical attire that appear organically inspired by the elements. You’re going to get to see them all super close-up since the actors are literally inches away from you at times; take a look at the exquisite buttons, the meticulous stitching and how the fabric on Prospero’s cape drapes so regally.

Aladrian Wetzel is commanding as Prospero. From an audience members’ vantage, she looks 11 feet tall; her head reaches the cloth-draped ceiling and her sheer, flowing cloak brushes the stage as she moves. Wetzel keeps her back straight and rigid; she is a tree, the mast of a ship, a bolt of lightning, a magic staff striking the ground. Towering and immovable, her elevated position is a visual manifestation of her power over Ariel and Caliban – everyone, really. Through her voice, body, and movement, Wetzel embodies Prospero’s stature, discipline, and single-mindedness. In animal skins, feathers, and vast, magical capes, she makes an arresting image as the shipwrecked sorcerer.

Molly Marguiles (Stephano) and Sarah Lamar (Alonso). Photo by Carly J. Bales.

Katharine Vary shines as Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. Clad in a layer of fine cloth under a loose-knit, handmade tunic, with strings of beads, and a macramé belt that houses a knife pouch and pelts, Vary expresses Miranda’s duality well. She is the daughter of a Duke, but she was raised on a deserted island; she remains “civilized’ due to her dignified father, but she is also wild. Stalking an animal, Vary’s lithe body creeps low and smooth like a silent predator. Vary’s acting is always good; this performance is no exception. She portrays Miranda’s innocent naivety and the rugged wildness she learned from island life with equal acumen.

Jonathan Jacobs adeptly plays Ferdinand, Miranda’s love interest and heir to the throne of Naples. Jacobs does a great job portraying the enchanted prince who must prove himself to Prospero as worthy of Miranda’s affection. This role is ripe with comedic opportunity and Jacobs takes every one. His physical comedy rivals his lovesick trance as my favorite part of his performance.

Mika Nakano plays the air spirit, Ariel. Indebted to Prospero for helping her escape a curse, Ariel is Prospero’s magical servant until such time as he releases her. Nakano delivers her lines in a clear, but often otherworldly manner; her whispered soliloquies from the projection screens are practically hypnotic. Nakano’s light and spritely movements match her character’s airy magic well. Most impressive, though, is a scene in which she dons feathered wings. Her movements are taut and spasmodic like a bird, with articulation control that make her seem downright avian. Caitlin Bouxsein’s movement consulting surely helped Nakano achieve this feat.

Prospero’s other servant, the “monstrous” Caliban, is played by June Keating. Caliban is not a very sympathetic character, but Keating manages to humanize him in a way that doesn’t excuse his misdeeds, but still makes his involuntary captivity and poor-treatment by Prospero feel bad. Keating’s Caliban is energetic and flashes unapologetic displays of emotion. At the prospect of serving a new master, he beams with a grateful delight reminiscent of Dobby when Harry tricked Malfoy into giving him a sock. Even knowing what Caliban’s plan would entail, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful for him.

Annex company members Molly Marguiles, as Stephano, and Carly J. Bales, as Trinculo are so funny they could take their show on the road. The drunken butler and hapless jester stumble through the play, eliciting laughter in every scene they touch. Marguiles is my favorite drunk since Jack Sparrow; she’s comical, but not so over-the-top as to be annoying or unintelligible. Bales’ physical comedy is spot-on. I don’t always go for vaudevillian kind of humor, but there’s a scene with Trinculo and Caliban that had me laughing out loud.

The cast is rounded out by a quartet of courtly folk. Betse Lyons is despicable as the villain, Antonio, who put this whole thing in motion by betraying his brother, Prospero. Annex company member Sarah Lamar is earnest as the grief-stricken Alonso, King of Naples, who believes his son Ferdinand was just lost at sea. Alonso’s brother, Sebastian – well-played by Desirae Bush – is less concerned with his family’s loss than with taking really bad brothering advice from Antonio. And Mike Ziccardi gives a standout performance as the good-hearted lord, Gonzalo.

Lyons, Lamar, and Ziccardi additionally play the three spirits – Iris, Ceres, and Juno – called by Prospero to solemnize Miranda and Ferdinand’s contract of love. The talent of Puppetry Designer, the Tryfus Collective, is evident in the striking, giant masks the actors hold aloft in a third horizontal dimension above the stage. The Collective also created several smaller puppets used to good effect in the show.

Annex Theaters production of The Tempest is unlike any I’ve seen before. All the elements I’ve mentioned – the acting, directing, set design, sound, lights, projections, puppets and those gorgeous costumes – they all conspire to make this show truly magical. With The Tempest, Evan Moritz and the folks at Annex have made a beautiful piece of art. With the world feeling as ugly as it has been of late, catch one of the remaining performances of The Tempest for a much-needed dose of beauty.

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

The Tempest plays through February 19, 2017, at The Annex Theater – 219 Park Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, buy them at the box office, or purchase them online.

NOTE: Due to the very limited seating for this production, I would encourage you to purchase tickets online to make sure you get a seat. Performances run Thursdays through Sundays.

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