‘The Tempest’ at Aquila Theatre

The touring Aquila Theatre production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest opened winningly. An older man we come to know as Prospero, is sitting alone at the lip of center stage. The curtain is closed behind him. Only a stack of books and interesting wooden crates and boxes are his company. He seems lost in thought, as if somewhere else.

Scene from 'The Tempest'. Photo by Richard Termine.                                                              Desiree SanchezLighting Designer                                                                   Peter MeineckCostume Designer
Scene from ‘The Tempest’. Photo by Richard Termine.

As the theater lights dim, up went the curtain to reveal a world populated by several actors in freeze frame, They are painted head to toe in a earthy dun color looking as if unfinished clay, not yet fired and ready for painting. We are in some sort of sculpture studio, with large hanging drapes, wooden frames, boxes and several risers.  This was a cool classical, intellectual look. A nice theatrically dramatic opening.

Alas, such dramatic touches were not the norm for the magical text of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Over the course of the performance the air lifting one of The Bard’s most well-known and oft-seen plays is deflated.

The Tempest is one of the great plays by Shakespeare with plenty of comic touches to soften dramatic dialogue about freedom, friendship, forgiveness, reconciliation, repentance and love. There are storms, out-of-the ordinary creatures, drunken clowns, plots and counter-plots. The Tempest is full of well-quoted lines such as: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on” and “What’s past is prologue.”

You can find the full text with a nice synopsis from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Scene from 'The Tempest'. Photo by Richard Termine.
Scene from ‘The Tempest’. Photo by Richard Termine.

Overall, on this one particular night the production felt as if the Bard’s words “No tongue, All eyes, Be silent” had been turned on their head. This Aquila production of The Tempest was built to tour. The set is schlepped around the country to about 50 different cities over the touring year. The set must fit into each and every venue, likely within a tight time-frame to build it and then strike (take it down). On this night, The Tempest was in the 2000 seat house Concert Hall of the George Mason University Center for the Arts. It was not a full hall; the sound and voices of some actors could be muddy with echoes or sounding as if in a soft whisper. Some of the beautiful language. The Bard created for us, got swallowed up. It was unfortunate.

Aquila has a cast of six perform the more than a dozen different roles. Four of the cast members double characters. James Lavender as Prospero is not so much a tyrant, but a tightly controlling, melancholy father to his daughter Miranda, and a boastful, abrasive leader to those on the mysterious little island he at first was helpful to. Or then again, maybe he only used them to survive. He wore a garland around his head to show his more exalted rank until the very last moment, when he ceded his powers to return the “real” world to become a father-in-law.

Tara Crabbe as Miranda has a refreshing take on what is often an “eye candy” role. She is far from powerless. She is well aware of her growing power as a beautiful, intelligent young woman who wants off the island, away from just her dad. She is ready to experience some healthy love and attention. And it is not Prospero’s conjuring that makes her so. She is almost devil-make-care in her attitude and the way she moves about the stage and says her lines. Under the nicely subversive touch of director Desiree Sanchez with the theatrical skills of Crabbe who is not long out of college, her Miranda has a modern spirit. She is no longer innocent of mind, though innocent of experience. She wants what she wants and is very dead-set curious to find it. In her sly, cunning portrayal, Crabbe is a high-point of the production. For me, once this Miranda is off the island, I can’t see her staying long with her betrothed. She would soon become bored with him soon enough and ask herself, “Now what?” Well done.

Ariel, as played by Carys Lewis, is an older wiser empathetic female figure. She is a kind-hearted spirit who wants to be set free to finally live a life on her own.  She is far from a submissive presence even if she does work asked of her by Prospero. She is one of the most loyal by Prospero’s side because he had once helped her survive, but that was in the past  Lewis is a soulful grace in her subtle stage presence as Ariel. Nice touch.

In an interesting doubling of roles, Joseph Cappellazzi is two totally different characters. He is the soulful, intelligent half-man creature Caliban, performed with an earthy and quick-witted, sensuality, at least when near Crabbe’s Miranda. All he wants is to be respected and loved. That is not to be. As Ferdinand, Miranda’s husband-to-be, Cappellazzi is soft, metro-sexual, nice-guy with few hints of much sensuality or his own personhood. He is a ticket off the island with Prospero his puppeteer.

Two other doubling actors are Rupert Baldwin and Michael Ring. They are a high-energy hoot as a comic duo of drunken characters working with Caliban in an unsuccessful plot of revenge against Prospero. For some, I can imagine, the drunken scenes may have been way over the top or perhaps charged with unwelcome innuendo. Not for me, just saying.

Cast of 'The Tempest'. Photo by Richard Termine.
Cast of ‘The Tempest’. Photo by Richard Termine.

I always have enjoyed Aquila productions but for this one off-night the wonderment of The Tempest was just not quite there.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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The Tempest played on on Friday, January 23, 2014 at 8 p.m. at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts – 4400 University Drive, in Fairfax, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (888) 945-2468, or by purchasing them online.

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Link: ‘In the Moment’: Aquila Theatre’s ‘The Tempest’ Visits George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on Friday, January 23rd at 8 PM

Tomorrow night is the Spring Season premiere of Aquila's "The Tempest" – 8pm at George Mason's Center for the Arts. Here's a preview of what's coming your way!

Posted by Aquila Theatre on Thursday, January 22, 2015

Note: The Aquila Theatre’s touring company performance is part of Shakespeare in American Communities, a national program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in cooperation with Arts Midwest. Aquila is one of several dozen theater companies involved; including American Shakespeare Company, Barter Theater, Folger Theatre, Henley Street Theatre, and Shakespeare Theatre Company.

The NEA report is here.

Note: Aquila is a regular visitor to the George Mason University Center for the Arts Great Performances series. In remarks made at the pre-show discussion, Aquila Artistic Director Desiree Sanchez indicated that the 2015-16 touring productions will include Romeo and Juliet and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Note: Let me wonder out loud this: might the audience experience with a touring theater company’s production with smaller casts and less elaborate sets be differently, yet well served in the 460 seat Harris Theatre with two performances, a matinee, and evening performance over a weekend or on the same day?