‘The Tempest’ at We Happy Few Productions at Fort Fringe by Rick Westerkamp

FOUR STARS
As I entered The Shop at Fort Fringe for We Happy Few Productions’ production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I was intrigued by the ambiance. Prospero watched as the audience filed in, from a balcony that wrapped around the stage space. There was an intricate rope design in the playing space, multiple rope ladders up to the balcony, and ropes along the back of the stage space, with bottles hanging off of them. I was immediately transported to the island upon which Prospero (Nathan Bennett) and Miranda (Britt Duff) have been stranded for quite some time.

Caliban (Josh Adams) and Stephano (Vanita Kalra). Photo courtesy of We Happy Productions.

Caliban (Josh Adams) and Stephano (Vanita Kalra). Photo courtesy of We Happy Productions.

For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it is a quite simple and easy to follow story. Prospero possesses magical powers, and he and his daughter Miranda were banished from Milan by Prospero’s brother Antonio (Vanita Kalra). Prospero and Miranda find themselves on a deserted island, and Prospero takes two creatures under his command: the cunning spirit Ariel (played by the ensemble) and the earthly Caliban (Josh Adams). At the top of the show, Prospero uses his magic and sees that his brother’s ship is near the island. With the help of Ariel, he creates a tempest to set their ship adrift. Prospero separates the ship’s passengers, and thus we have three plots to follow. The first plot involves Antonio, Alonso (Adrienne Lee), and Alonso’s brother Sebastian (Maxwell Roderic Heaton) and advisor, Gonzalo (Andrew Keller). The second plot involves Prospero and his attempt to set Miranda up with Alonso’s son Ferdinand (Scott Gaines).

The third plot involves Caliban and two drunken men from the boat, Stephano (Vanita Kalra) and Trinculo (Maxwell Roderic Heaton), who he believes to be descended from the moon. As these plots develop and coexist, there is magic, comedy, love, and the supernatural to illicit any number of emotions from you.

The ensemble of this production is to be applauded for their deep commitment to this work. If you take nothing else away from this production, it should be that these actors are working on multiple levels, what with Shakespeare’s language, their musical interludes, their movement choreography, and fact that most of them play two to three roles in the course of this ninety-minute experience.

The stand out performance for me was Josh Adams’s portrayal of Caliban. His commitment, both vocally and physically, is astounding. I was instantly drawn to his aerial and acrobatic abilities. I was constantly in awe of and surprised by the choices he made, though this made his being a part of the ensemble as Ariel difficult for me by the end of the play because his physicality as Caliban was far too similar to his physicality as Ariel.

Nathan Bennett’s Prospero got stronger as the production went along. By the end of the production, I was hanging on his every word, and found myself getting lost in his speeches. Britt Duff’s Miranda was interesting, and a take on the character that I found unexpected. Duff’s chemistry with Scott Gaines’s Ferdinand is wonderful to behold. Gaines’s understanding of the language and the way he plays physically with this role is wonderful.

The strength in Hannah Todd’s direction of this production, for me, lies in the concept. I loved how present this ensemble of actors was onstage. The idea that someone playing one part watched the other scenes and provided the supernatural environment was very compelling. The decision to make Ariel an amalgamation of the ensemble was by far my favorite element of the production. The fact that Ariel was at times a clump of bodies, or a wide-spread amoeba, with the ensemble on the floor and up in the balcony, with voices coming from all over, was powerful and the decision of when to be wide-spread and when to be clumped together was done with a keen aesthetic. I also respect and admire the collaborative nature of this piece, from the eerie and environmentally fundamental music composed by John Todd and expertly directed by Ben Lurye, to the strength of the movement direction by Jacob Jannsen and Raven Bonniwell, it was clear that Todd’s vision was embraced and elevated by her adept collaborators.

I also enjoyed the set design of Curry Hackett. The fact that the actors had multiple avenues to climb, hang, leap and bound from different heights, and multiple pathways to travel on the ground kept the action engaging for me and allowed the actors to be unpredictable.

Prospero (center) and cast members. Photo courtesy of We Happy Few Productions.

Prospero (Nathan Bennett) and cast members. Photo courtesy of We Happy Few Productions.

The lighting design by Jason Aufdem-Brinke was stellar, particularly during the tempestuous storm at the top of the show, and during Prospero’s speech about the green sea. The costume design by Jess Young worked for me on one level and then didn’t work for me on another level. I loved the fabric moment that was happening, across the board for all of the actors. The draped island motif was a constant thread for the cast, but the use of jeans and khaki pants took me out of the action. Had labels been removed and/or covered, or even a different fabric pant been considered, I would have been wholeheartedly on board with this aspect of the design. The use of modern fabrics with these intricately braided, draped and wrapped tops was fighting with the concept of the production.

This site-specific take on a Shakespearean tale of love, longing, and what it means to be lost is alive and well at The Shop at Fort Fringe. If you are looking for a fun, experimental show with a lot of heart, visit We Happy Few’s production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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The Tempest plays through May 12, 2013 at The Shop at Fort Fringe – 607 New York Avenue NW, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets here. 

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