‘The Tempest’ at Annapolis Shakespeare Company

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In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the richness, the grace and the grandeur of the English language itself entertain in a way that only the Bard can. Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s superb production of The Tempest, under the direction of Jay D. Brock, eloquently rattles the spirit as it wistfully and wonderfully interprets this stormy tale of revenge and forgiveness.

Brian MacDonald (Prospero) and Jenny Donovan (Miranda). Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

Brian MacDonald (Prospero) and Jenny Donovan (Miranda). Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

One of Shakespeare’s late-career romances, The Tempest is a complex story that straddles both worlds: Prospero (Brian Keith McDonald) lands on a desolate island along with his daughter, Miranda (Jenny Donovan), after being set adrift at sea by his brother, Antonio (Grant Cloyd), who usurped Prospero’s rule as the Duke of Milan. On an enchanted, shipwrecked island, Prospero learns the art of sorcery after taking over from a powerful witch, Sycorax , who once ruled there. In a blatant act of revenge some twelve years later, Prospero creates the perfect storm when he magically shipwrecks Antonio along with an entourage (Amie Cazel, Elliott Kashner, Kiernan McGowan, Joe Palka) including Alonso, King of Naples (Brian McDermott), who had also plotted Prospero’s demise and Alonso’s son, Ferdinand (David Mavricos).

As the god of Fortune would have it, Miranda encounters Ferdinand with love-at-first sight passion and they fall madly in love. Prospero, with some exigencies, blesses the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand. Therein Prospero discovers the power of forgiveness, declaring in an awe-inspiring final soliloquy, “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.”

The cast is superb – an outstanding ensemble of classical actors.

Brian Keith McDonald’s Prospero is a charismatic presence whose majestic persona radiates to every corner of the theater. He literally thunders across the stage wielding a Moses-like staff in hand as he vengefully plots to destroy his enemies. And even towards the end, when he has a change of heart in the face of young love, he still projects a convincing forcefulness that yields only to strength.

Jenny Donovan’s Miranda is an impulsive, impetuous and passionate character with a wild-eyed innocence. Ferdinand, portrayed by David Mavricos is naifish yet confident in a balanced kind of way even in the face of the all-powerful Prospero.

There are several tragicomic subplots in this briny tale. The main one is the drunken interplay between Trinculo, a jester (Charlie Retzlaff) and Stephano (Kiernan McGowan), both servants of Antonio, along with Caliban, servant to Prospero and monstrous son of the long-gone island witch. Prospero’s forceful energy helps to balance out the sagging comic relief that was supposed to occur within this foolhardy trio. Somehow the physical humor and drunken jostling never quite get to the point of really being funny although they gave it their all trying.

Caliban is a pitiable quasi-Quasimodo figure dressed in dirty diapered loincloth, Rasta dreadlocked and searching for validation of his humanity, played by Alex Zavistovich, with enough conviction to elicit empathy and disgust at the same time.

Ariel, a sea nymph-like spirit beautifully emoted by Raven Bonniwell who, gliding over the stage in glassy-eyed, trancelike dance moves, projects a powerful spirit even though she is still in subservient bondage to Prospero. Bonniwell’s Ariel exudes a strong sense of self despite the strange relationship she has with Prospero as his spirit-slave.

The design of The Tempest is stunning. Pre-curtain, the mood of the moment is starkly apparent upon entering the theater. One– now two — now three sea nymphs (Emily Samuelson, Micaela Mannix, and Raven Bonniwell) in aquamarine leotards that look like blue-green algae under diaphanous, draping scarf-like cloths designed by Maggie Cason fill the stage, climb a side-wall ladder or prance dance through the theater in mysterious postures and poses choreographed by Sally Boyett. In later scenes, Cason’s red velvets and gold-brocaded men’s breeches, cossetted jackets and wide-brimmed cloth hats appealingly evoke the Elizabeth period.

The curtain-less stage lays bare a set design of beachfront openness complete with weathered driftwood slats and real beach sand on the floor with an overhang of gauzy old sail material gently wafting mid-stage setting the scene for the tempest to come. A lighted bookcase likely filled with tomes on witchcraft crookedly sits on sinking sand and peers out at the audience center stage like a symbol of the source of Prospero’s magic.

With a thunderous roar, blinding flickering lights and an apparition of crashing winds, the titular opening scene rocks the house for what seems like a short eternity. Gregg Martin’s excellent sound effects create a virtual storm. The only downside to this thunderous groundswell is that it muffles some of the early dialogue. Adding to the aura of mystery in this production is Martin’s eerily magical taped instrumental music which is an important element to help create a supernatural mood and tone throughout this production. Catherine Girardi’s lighting of the colored backdrops is amazing and give a breathtaking simplicity to the static set.

Raven Bonniwell (Ariel). Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

Raven Bonniwell (Ariel). Photo by Joshua McKerrow.

As somewhat of a newbie to Shakespeare, I bring an ‘Average Joe’ perspective to Shakespearean theater. However, I enjoyed this production of The Tempest on many levels. The pure aural pleasure of listening to my native tongue gives me a greater appreciation for it. And the thematic depth of this work by William Shakespeare gives food for thought on human terms. Virtue and vengeance, bondage and loyalty, the crass physical and the otherworldly, greed and magnanimity, tragedy and comedy, simplicity and complexity are some of the antithetical yet timeless explorations in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

If you are a lover of the Bard, or are a Shakespeare newbie, you definitely won’t want to miss the Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s outstanding production of The Tempest.

Running Time: Two hours, plus a 15-minute intermission.

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The Tempest plays through August 17, 2014 at Annapolis Shakespeare Company performing at the Bowie Playhouse – 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, in Bowie, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 415-3513, or purchase them online.

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