APT’s “The Tempest,” all about magic and the magic of theater
Director James Bohnen and his American Players Theatre crew needed no elaborate, tilting facsimile of a ship to create the storm-tossed scene that opens Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Actors dashed and stumbled in concert to show the terrifying swells and troughs. The noblemen of Naples and Milan had merely to jump from the outdoor stage into the aisles to show us they had abandoned ship. Those actions, some sound effects and our imaginations sold the scene.
Audience complicity in illusion is high among the many charms of live theater in general and a particular charm of APT, never more when APT does Shakespeare at the Up the Hill Theatre, and perhaps most of all when it does The Tempest there. Shakespeare, especially in this play, asks a lot in terms of suspension of disbelief.
The Tempest, as played in this endlessly touching production, is no mere theatrical caprice. Amid all the magic, very real characters make moral decisions for better and ill, in a play that ponders how we ought to live to make the real world gentler.
Kenneth Albers’ Prospero stands at the moral center of it all. We see him first as god-like, a Wizard of Oz with real power and wisdom. His flaw? A thirst for revenge, which drives him to conjure a storm and bring his enemies to heel. But as Albers and Shakespeare reveal more and more of Prospero to us, he becomes more and more conflicted — though he never fails to maintain his wizard’s poker face when he must. He is surprised to find vengeance less sweet than he imagined during the prior 12 years of island exile and his humane instincts harder to suppress. But he shares that only with us. We are no mere viewers, but also the central character’s confidante.
Prospero’s treasured daughter glows with disarming tomboy vigor and bright innocence in the girlish form of Susan Shrunk. No wonder she is the apple of Prospero’s eye — what a warm and natural daughter and father Shunk and Albers make. And no wonder Ferdinand, the castaway Prince of Naples, falls for her. The handsome, athletic Travis A. Knight plays Ferdinand as a good fellow who grows to his noblest stature through Miranda’s love.
Deborah Staples made of Ariel, the spirit who does Prospero’s bidding, as if she were a sparrow: light, nervous, quarrelsome and eager. Staples never stands or rests, she perches. She and Albers’ Prospero grow increasingly fond and respectful as the play unfolds, and that deepening relationship is beautiful to see. We even see a hint of reconciliation at the end with the monstrous Caliban. Steve Wojtas applied a breathtaking, scuttling athleticism to this creature (I’ll be capoeira martial arts/dance is somewhere in his background), and just the right tone of wounded injustice. Monsters project their failings on others, and Wojtas makes us feel the misplaced anger.
The cast is too large for comment on every actor, but I must mention Michael Huftile and John Lister, as Sebastian and Antonio, the treasonous brothers. They made them cynical wise-guys rather than oily villains, which makes sense; these fellows do have a bead on the folly of those around them. The actors delivered their repartee with deadly accuracy and got some of the play’s biggest laughs.
As in APT’s Taming of the Shrew, seen and reviewed earlier this summer, the entire cast delivers Shakespeare’s language not as precious, flowery stuff, but as telling, plain-spoken language. Shakespeare has never been so legible as it is in the mouths of APT actors speaking the speeches outdoors direct to our ears, with no microphones involved.
Albers, in Prospero’s epilogue, not only wrapped up the plot, but also spoke of the bargain between actor and audience that profits both:
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
The Tempest runs through Sept. 30. For a complete schedule, to purchase tickets and for more information, visit the American Players Theatre website.