Brave New Bard

Just when you might think that Shakespeare's play about an exiled wizard has suffered the rough seas of time for too long and is only capable of landing on some remote island of mediocrity, a production like the one currently at the American Globe Theater washes ashore. And as old Gonzalo says in the play about his sea-worn garments, this staging of The Tempest emerges from the waters "new-dyed"—a crisp, vital reminder that Shakespeare still does theater better than anyone who's come along since. Readers are probably familiar with what is often considered the final play written solely by the Bard. Exiled Duke Prospero becomes a sorcerer supreme and the master of an enchanted island and its inhabitants. But when a ship bearing the men who sent Prospero packing sails by the island, the embittered wizard creates a great storm to bring his banishers to his island, where he can exact revenge. When Prospero's daughter, Miranda, falls in love with Ferdinand, son of one of his exilers, the necromancer's heart is moved, and he wonders if revenge is the right path after all.

Globe Artistic Director John Basil's staging and the show’s overall design take full advantage of the text's fantasy elements. If Prospero summons up a storm or causes a sword to fall from someone's hand, perfectly focused lights (by Mark Hankla) and potent sound effects (Scott O'Brien) enhance the illusion. Likewise, Prospero's right-hand fairy Ariel zips on and offstage, accompanied by an appropriately mystical "whoosh."

The best part is that all of these effects occur seamlessly—in the performance I attended, there wasn't a single missed cue. The lavish costumes (by Jim Parks) and angular, layered scenic design (Kevin Lee Allen) are vividly rendered and further strengthen the production's briskness. Someone accustomed to seeing low-budget Off-Off Broadway productions will find these professionally executed design elements quite refreshing.

Every cast member has a profound grasp of the text, which is sadly a rarity in Off-Off Broadway productions of Shakespeare. As Prospero, Richard Fay has a lot of work to do—not to mention thousands of high school English teachers to validate. Even so, he doesn't buckle under the pressure of playing a character so familiar. Instead, he makes each speech and action his own by playing Prospero as a human, and not like the stock wizard character seen in most fantasy fiction.

Other standouts include the buoyant Elizabeth Keefe as Ariel and the implausibly funny Mat Sanders as Trinculo. Most surprising, however, is Uma Incrocci's fresh take on Miranda. She plays Prospero's daughter not only as a believable teenager but also with more dimension than is traditionally seen in this one-note ingénue character.

This staging hasn't added a dramatic new concept to Shakespeare's text, or tried to make it more relevant by setting it in another time period. Instead, the American Globe's production sticks to the text and highlights the dramatic concepts that were already there. The simple but theatrical story of The Tempest still resonates on a variety of levels, especially in the hands of such able artists.

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