Theater review: The Tempest

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Have you ever wondered what would happen if Shakespeare’s Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban were transported from the enchanted tropical island ruled by duke-turned-wizard Prospero to, say, Gilligan’s Island — or that wholesome shore where Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello frequently kissed but never coupled? Nah, didn’t think so. Yet in Shakespeare Carolina’s recent production of The Tempest, director Chris O’Neill tacked in exactly that direction.

Clips of Beach Blanket Bingo and other 60s schlock were projected behind a handsome Biff Edge set that had the dense foliage of Bali Ha’i at stage right and a majestic primitive Robinson Crusoe compound at the opposite wing. Yes, it’s definitely advantage Carolina when it comes to matching up the venues where our two local Shakespeare producers have taken up residence. Winthrop’s Johnson Hall trumps McGlohon when it comes to sightlines and state-of-the-art technical accoutrements.

With all this technical artillery at his disposal, O’Neill’s zany concept actually worked — for nearly three minutes. Aliens in Hawaiian luau shirts swarmed the stage, simulating the storm Prospero had conjured over the sea to ensnare his dastardly brother Antonio and a royal party including the King of Naples. The frank artifice of the noisemaking was absolutely delightful, but from there on, O’Neill had to lean on the resources of his cast, a dreary prospect to be sure.

As an exponent of the Bard’s classic protagonists, the improving Brian Willard was a work-in-progress last year when he attempted Macbeth, and he continued to be in that same underclass as Prospero. Even allowing for the possibility that the patriarch should be utterly transformed in O’Neill’s tiki-lounge concept of The Tempest, no new character outlines emerged to replace the old. More startling was the choice of David L. Loehr to take on the mooncalf role of Caliban. Loehr is normally about as bestial as geek icon Jim Parsons, the pedantic Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory, and he didn’t expand his range here.

O’Neill decreed more campy clips during the intermission, but his intriguing tiki-Tempest concept bore no more intriguing fruit during the remainder of his storytelling. Shakespeare Carolina’s lighthearted tack seemed to preclude tackling the valedictory depths of the text, a major drag to anyone who admires this script as the playwright’s supreme romance.

The lone glimmer amid the acting gloom was a truly sprightly Katie Bearden as Ariel, the only cast member who seemed to have the notion that Shakespeare’s verse could sing. Bearden’s standout performance was aided by the most splendiferous of the costumes, an individual project by Gregory Hewett (others, by Brenda Floyd and Geri Boyette, were also commendable). O’Neill’s staging also opened up a couple of unique spaces for Bearden, up high at balcony level, in little nooks that opened up in the walls flanking the stage.

So there was plenty to be excited about in a production that boasted all the technical polish that Macbeth lacked, with huge improvements in continuity and flow. But the play’s still the thing, and O’Neill needs to hook up with better players.

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