How beauteous mankind is! Particularly the beauty found in those willing to brave the natural tempest of Maryland’s summer weather at Olney Theatre Center this summer season. A fantastical stormy adventure, by way of the Bard, sets shore upon the Root Family Stage beneath the stars and The Tempest provides a brilliant evening of classic theatre for a warm summer’s night. Directed by Jason King Jones, this retelling of love, loss, jealousy, and comedy falls perfectly to the planks of the stage beneath the stars offering merriment and a wondrous tale within for all who attend it.
Director Jason King Jones’ concept behind the production is innovative; layering in thematic elements both subtle and overt to more fully develop the ideas behind Shakespeare’s musings. Imploring the use of these symbolic elements and infusing them into the scenic design, lighting schematics, and costumes makes for a well-rounded and thoroughly articulated artistic vision.
Scenic Designer Charlie Calvert brings a two-fold approach of symbolism to his design work with a smattering of umbrellas covering the stage. Not only are umbrellas relevant as shelter from the oncoming storm, but they serve as a reminder of how Prospero wished nothing but to shield his daughter Miranda from the cruelties of the world, from a past long forgotten, and from the men that had so easily made ruin of his own life. Juxtaposing these umbrellas against the clever workings of Lighting Designer Sonya Dowhaluk, the umbrellas of the backdrop become a living, pulsating entity; glowing in rich shades of the sea and water and air every time that Prospero calls upon his magic or his divining spirit, Ariel.
The fusion of design elements goes further still as Costume Designer Pei Lee ignites the underskirts of Ariel’s sprightly gown with little twinkles of light, reflecting the spirit of how lighthearted and uplifting air can be into the overall concept of the island’s air spirit. Lee allows the costumes to otherwise speak naturally of the characters upon which they are donned. Clown ruffles and tutus for Trinculo and Stefano, a pristinely white, almost virginal slip of a dress for Miranda, touched lightly with blue as the sea has lightly touched upon her life. Prospero receives the most majestic of costumes, a brilliant teal cloak that shimmers with gossamer reflections to match his magic staff— an equally colored and shimmering oversized umbrella.
Jones allows the text to speak for itself, allowing the talent of the cast to translate the message wholly without becoming ensnared by elaborate framework. The opening scene where Miranda finds herself sitting calmly amid the tempest aboard the King’s boat is a fascinating approach to viewing Prospero’s sorcery; as if simply holding his crystal ball could transport her there to witness the storm in person without ever existing in actual danger. Other little moments, like the way the “god dream” scene is handled (ambiguity and vagueness become a must here for fear of spoiling the delightfully enormous surprises contained therein) and the enormous bendy straws for Trinculo and Stefano’s scenes with Caliban and the sack which has washed ashore, are unique little ways in which Jones makes the production his own without losing sight of the core messages.
The show even kicks off with preshow merriment, Stephano and a member of the National Players 66th touring company entertain the audience with songs and the arrival of Trinculo, the mime, who tells his tale as to why he has arrived so late. It is these little moments of eccentric entertainment that set the production at Olney apart from others in the area.
The trio of comedians to watch are Trinculo (Jacob Mundell) Stefano (Dan Van Why) and Caliban (Ryan Mitchell.) When they get together for their shenanigans regarding a plot to overthrow Prospero, a great deal of hilarity does ensue. It’s Mundell’s body language that really is a testament to the true Shakespearean shtick that often befalls such characters as these. Mitchell, painted entirely in blue, becomes a unique monster all his own throughout the performance and adapts a physicality that always keeps his head below Prospero’s; a sign of true servitude.
If there are clowns then there must be evil to balance out the notion of hilarity. Antonio (Paul Morella) and Sebastian (Christopher Richardson) take up these noble posts with Morella’s fierce approach to the knavish rogue really giving him a villainous edge. Gonzalo (Alan Wade) should be noted for his perfect juxtaposition of inherent goodness against these two; Wade’s performance grounding reason and hope amid the perilous situation.
The lovers, adding to the formulaic excellence of a Shakespearean comedy, being Ferdinand (Alexander Korman) and Miranda (Leah Filley) are quite genuine with one another. The wood-baring scene (which is done cleverly with umbrellas rather than log piles) becomes a heartwarming shared moment between Korman and Filley; the instantaneous chemistry that sprouts between them an homage to the absurd ‘love at first sight’ notions so often found in the Bard’s work. Filley overcomes her actual age to make Miranda young at heart with the simpering voice she adapts and her lighthearted steps and overall physical approach to the character.
Ariel (Julie-Ann Elliott) is a much more grounded character in this performance of The Tempest. Reserved and yet revered, Elliott is the epitome of air harnessed and controlled. Prospero (Craig Wallace) has total control over her yet there are moments wherein Elliott is ready to burst free from her captive bonds. Her approach to walking lighter with footfalls that nearly grow silent as she approaches freedom from her servitude shows as a brilliant progression in the character. Elliott’s naturally enigmatic voice is perfect for such a mysterious character.
As for Wallace, his presence can be summed up in one word: commanding. A fierce force as mighty as the tempest he conjures, his bellowed speeches are well versed with emotion and speak strongly of his keen understanding of Shakespearean delivery. Wallace is as impressive as the special effects used in this production; making for an exceptional combination of acting and effects to tell this marvelous tale. It is a perfect evening under the stars, and audiences everywhere are in for a true treat, if only the rain will hold out.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minute, with one intermission
The Tempest plays through August 3, 2014 on the Root Family Stage outdoors at the Olney Theatre Center— 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. For tickets call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.