Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2001.
Did I tell everyone that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the must-see show at Shakespeare & Company this season? I take that back. If you only have the time and money to see one grand Shakespearean production this summer, by all means make it The Tempest. If you have the time and money for both Midsummer Night’s Dream is still great fun, but this Tempest is really something!
Shakespeare & Company has made much of Dream being their dramatic farewell to The Mount. Well, The Tempest is their great big hello to the new Founder’s Theatre. Their first production in this gorgeous new space was a restaging of last season’s production of Coriolanus, and the second was the very realistic drama Collected Stories. Both were fine shows but neither took advantage of the flexibility and intimacy of the Founder’s Theatre. Even before I walked in the door I had high hopes for what could be done with The Tempest in this space, and I was not disappointed by what director Eleanor Holdridge, set designer Kris Stone, and lighting designer Jane Cox came up with.
From the opening moments when Prospero (Michael Hammond) unleashes the storm from his cell high above the stage, the audience is surrounded by and intimately involved in the play. Cast members literally swarm the pipes and ladders that support the second tier of seats. Before you know it all are cast ashore on Prospero’s island and drawn into is art and science.
I was struck in this production by what an amazing creation the character of Prospero is. He was not at all the average Elizabethan in thought, skill or action. In fact, he is not at all the average man in any sense. Though he is very thoroughly human, a side of this character that Hammond brings to the fore nicely, he has, as they used to say, “powers and abilities far above those of mortal men.” He could wreck havoc, but instead he is able to overcome normal human inclinations of jealousy, anger and revenge to use his skills to make peace and new beginnings in the world.
There are no weak links in the cast, although I did wish those three sprites would stop twitching about. Kristin Wold makes a beautiful, other worldly Ariel. I truly believed that she was not of flesh and blood. Lucia Brawley and Jason Van Over are winningly ingenious as the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand who will people the brave new world Prospero is out to create.
But the evening belongs to the clowns — Dan McCleary as Stefano, Jonathan Croy as Caliban, and John Beale as Trinculo. (Do I feel a chorus of Sondheim coming on?) Cavorting loudly all over the building, including a noisy trip to the bar at intermission, singing lustily, making hilariously bad puns with the word “butt” (in this case butt means “a cask for wine or ale measuring in capacity from 108 to 140 gallons” according to the OED), and generally harassing audience members. Holdridge obviously let these three very talented men take their characters and run with them. Oh, see how they run!
Michael Oberle has designed some spectacular and livable costumes for one and all. Combined with the performances of the cast and Stone and Cox’s fantastic set and lighting they take you right out of the real world and into Shakespeare’s fantasy world. You will not see a more beautiful and exciting physical production this season, and maybe for many seasons to come. I highly recommend a walk around the theatre at intermission to look at Stone’s set from many angles. It is intended to be seen that way, but the restraints of one seat per customer mean that while the show is up you will see it from only one point of view. Seated as I was in the orchestra, I did not understand what was on the floor of the stage until I climbed up into the second tier. That simple trip up the stairs literally expanded the universe of the play for me.
Two very small children were seated behind me, and, while the younger, who I would guess was somewhere just shy of his second birthday, fell sound asleep, his older sister, who I would estimate to be around four, stayed awake for most of the evening and found the show most interesting. Because of the intimacy of the space which brings the fantasy and comedy right into the audience’s laps, this show is a better family outing than Midsummer Night’s Dream where the acres of space on the outdoor Main Stage actually serve to keep the audience at arm’s length.
The Shakespeare and Company (413-637-3353) production of The Tempest runs through September 1 at the new Founder’s Theatre, 70 Kemble Street (Rt. 7A) in Lenox. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001