Review: ‘The Tempest’ by Avant Bard

How does a nimble theater company retool an often produced Shakespeare classic such as The Tempest? Well, Avant Bard found a way under Tom Prewitt’s inviting direction, with gender-swapping and multi-cultural casting choices, along with an emphasis on several characters’ development of their own agency. What could have been the same old The Tempest that many audiences have known by heart since high school, is no frothy stew.

Alyssa Sanders and Justin J. Bell in Avant Bard’s The Tempest. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Prewitt and his Avant Bard troupe reward the audience with a deeper, non-academic dive into The Tempest, revealing a consciously re-imagined, fine subtext. Prewitt has devised The Tempest to become a sharp, perceptively wrought production about people shedding their outer skin to reveal another inner, unseen self.

But, first, for those less familiar with The Bard’s The Tempest, the play concerns Prospero, a deposed Duke now living in exile on a small island somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Prospero lives in isolation except for his daughter Miranda, and with several others who he “owns.” The others are Caliban, the son of a witch, and a sprite named Ariel. Exile does bring Prospero something unexpected: magical powers.

And how will Prospero use his new magical powers? Initially, he thinks of ways to seek revenge on those who usurped his throne. He concocts a raging storm that sinks a wooden ship and discharges a gaggle of refugees to his forlorn island. The people include those who did ill to Prospero.

Avant Bard’s production of The Tempest has veteran actor Christopher Henley in the lead role as Prospero. Henley’s portrayal is of an arrogant aging Prospero seeing his cock-sure, iron grip on life and his tight control of daughter harder to maintain.

As Prospero, Henley seems to struggle with his own authority, his voice not a sonorous tenor, but a lighter tone, sometimes unsure whispering. He begins to question how he should use his magical powers in his short-tempered raging against his enemies. Should he smite any and all? Well, that is the journey of Prospero that the audience gets to follow.

As Prospero’s daughter Miranda, Allyson Boate isn’t a submissive, coy, young woman with a “Yes, Daddy, I will do as told” presence. She begins to have her own agency, especially after she sees one of the refugees, Ferdinand (a delightful Miles Folley), and they fall madly in love. When Boate speaks the line, “I am your wife if you will marry me,” she is speaking from a position of strength and power. Ferdinand has no other response but to submit, and he does.

Allyson Boate, Christopher Henley, and Miles Folley in Avant Bard’s The Tempest. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

As for Caliban, often portrayed as a clumsy villain, an uneducated monster with few redeeming features, well, that is totally not the case with Justin J. Bell in the role. Bell shows his rightful righteous anger.

With his background in physical theater working with Synetic Theater, Bell is an animated, lively presence. He is a dynamo of a strong, mistreated man who wants his freedom. Bell’s Caliban is no monster, but rather an “owned” individual trying to break free.

Ariel also deserves more than a mention. This Ariel is no Tinker Bell to Peter Pan. This Ariel is like an apparition after too long under the sun, or the wrong dosage of drugs that have opened the mind of Prospero. How so? Well, in Avant Bard’s take, Ariel is played by three different actors, each vastly different from the other, yet synchronized. The three well-tuned actors are Emily H. Gilson, Camille Pivetta, and Reginald Richard.

Others in the cast include the hapless and comic, re-gendered characters Stephano (Cam Magee) and Trinculo (Alyssa Sanders). Magee and Sanders also play plotting and vicious folk, with Magee as Antonia and Sanders as Sebastian. Other villains include Gonzalo (Brian Crane), a High Church figure, and Alonso (Frank Britton), a military man gone alt-civilian.

Along the way to Prospero making his final decisions about his daughter and his enemies are a number of scenes of pure Shakespearean joy and awe. There are scenes of drunkards trying to make sense of the world. A scene involving 4-legs that brought waves of laughter as well as high heels masquerading as swords. There was one particular line that became a double entendre during a moment of kissing that left the audience near tears. And then there is Bell as Caliban; his physical agility is totally impressive.

In the intimate space of Theater II at Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center, The Tempest is a handsome visual creation thanks to Set Designer Greg Stevens. With his alley set design, there is a central fabricated, sinewy, long, wooden ship, a marvel of construction that includes crow’s nest, ship’s wheel, and plenty of play space.

Surrounding the ship, underneath it, and at both ends are the detritus and props (Stevens again). The lighting design of Jos. B Musmei, Jr. and original incidental instrumental music composed by Andrew Bellware, meticulously underlay the entire production as if the audience is on an isle full of noises and dreams.

The costume design, also by Stevens, is a visual feast giving each character an individual sense of who they are at all times. The outfits range from vaudeville-like baggy pants for the comics, power-stressing attire for villains, and some nifty thrift store combinations that emphasize the color blue and one outer garment like a sorcerer cape from Disney’s Fantasia. Please take note of several articles on the arms of the Ariels. They are used as great signifiers.

Prewitt, the Avant Bard cast, and creative team found a sui generis take on Shakespeare’s “brave, new world” that seems genuinely optimistic (and provided me an opportunity to further bury Aldous Huxley’s 1932 appropriation of the words “brave, new world”). For Avant Bard’s The Tempest is a story of finding one’s humanity through love, forgiveness, and becoming vulnerable to others.

With optimism and forgiveness as its ultimate themes, the Avant Bard production of The Tempest is one for these days of rage as many of us seek shelter from the storm. Then again, the final fade in The Tempest is of the passengers turning into crew members rowing somewhere into the distance. Will a smile be on their face as they close in on wherever they are rowing towards?

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission

The Tempest  plays through July 1, 2018, at Gunston Arts Center Theatre Two – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets call the box office at 703-418-4804, or purchase them online.