Hartford Stage's TEMPEST both stormy and placid
When Hartford Stage Artistic Director Mark Lamos left the company in 1998 with a farewell production of Cymbeline, there was a collective, heavy sigh that great Shakespeare might be pulling out of town with him. Having kicked off his tenure at the theatre in 1980 with the same play, Lamos had put Hartford on the map in terms of The Bard. To be sure, Shakespeare made several appearances onstage during Michael Wilson’s tenure as Artistic Director, but Wilson’s legacy to the company is to be found in the works of Horton Foote and Tennessee Williams.
The announcement of Darko Tresnjak as Hartford Stage’s new Artistic Director has led to a sigh of relief from classicists. His first Shakespeare in Hartford, The Tempest, indicates both a steady and, at times, thrilling hand at work. It also indicates a need for restraint and focus on the text as, to quote The Bard himself, “the play’s the thing.”
Tresnjak’s Tempest opens with a stunning coup de theatre -- the shipwreck of an Italian schooner during the titular storm. A reclining goddess and her gown evolve into the masthead and prow of the ship. Bolts of fabric drop to become the sail and the mast. An aerialist, played by Joshua Dean, is blown about the rigging. The lighting and thunderous sound all conspire for a great stage moment. The one thing that gets lost in the storm -- particularly as you are intently watching the aerialist and the spinning ship -- the text.
The storm abates as we land on an island with only two human inhabitants -- Prospero and his daughter Miranda. The scenic design by Alexander Dodge is at the same time impressive and counterintuitive. The majority of the blue decking and rear wall is covered with the scrawled text of the play. Sprites in costumes that match the set’s graffiti gambol about the two-story bookshelves, a turntable spins and a large rear frame with a map of the globe opens to reveal various tableaux vivant. It’s all very eye-catching, but again I found myself looking at the visuals and not paying attention to the words.
The remainder of the production finds Tresnjak balancing the needs of the play with Cirque du Shakespeare -- trap doors belching smoke, furniture descending from the ceiling, ballet dancers, the return of the aerialist, rock-wall climbing, and, in another coup de theatre, a giant multiple bat-winged vision of the mischievous spirit Arial. Sometimes it serves the work beautifully and, at other moments, it detracts.
Overall, the performances vary. Daniel Davis as Prospero starts off the evening on a subdued note, particularly deadly during his extended conversation with his daughter Miranda. He catches fire during the second act summoning both human tenderness and supernatural firepower. In particular, Prospero’s epilogue, free of the production’s bells and whistles, shows how Shakespeare’s language in the hands of a great actor is sometimes all you need.
During the extended sequence between Caliban (Ben Cole) and the shipwrecked fools Trinculo (Bruce Turk) and Stephano (Michael Spencer-Davis), Tresnjak shows facility and simplicity with the language and movement. The audience and the production came alive during this clown show, again highlighting how a focus on the play and physical business was all you needed. As Caliban, Ben Cole looks like Tor Johnson, but showed range as a tormented monster and a silly, boot-licking drunk. Turk and Spencer-Davis are wonderfully funny in their respective roles.
The actors portraying Italian nobility stranded on the island range from fantastic (Noble Shropshire), to somewhat dull (Christopher Randolph and Jonathan Lincoln Fried), to overcooked (David Barlow). Sara Topham as Miranda and William Patrick Riley as Ferdinand make a fine, fetching pair of young lovers. Shirine Babb is suitably engaging as Ariel, incorporating ethereal song and movement into her performance.
Tresnjak’s first Shakespeare in Hartford certainly indicates great promise and much reason to be excited. Although this Tempest may not achieve gale-force levels of theatrical artistry, it indicates Hartford audiences are at the beginning of another fascinating journey.