Folger’s ‘Tempest’ Is Intense, Innovative

Posted May 14, 2007 at 6:06pm

Rarely has Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” opened with such cinematic intensity as it does in Folger Theatre’s new production of the classic tale of wrongdoing, magic and absolution. On a circular screen placed above the stage, film footage of a vicious storm unfolds, complete with images of the terrified passengers whose ship has fallen victim to the squall.

There on a ledge below the screen, patterned after a navigational device, stands a rather dotty looking Prospero, who with the help of the spirit Ariel has caused the storm that brings the Neapolitan King Alonso, his son Ferdinand, brother Sebastian, counselor Gonzalo and Prospero’s brother Antonio, the usurping duke of Milan, to the very island where Prospero, the rightful duke, was banished along with his daughter Miranda a dozen years ago thanks to Antonio and Alonso’s machinations.

This Prospero, as played by Michael Rudko, who bears a striking resemblance to actor John Lithgow, is a bookish imp of sorts, lacking the powerful presence one might expect of a man whose “art” helps make such magic possible and who holds both Ariel and the beastly Caliban, the offspring of an island witch, in his spell. And Rudko’s often timid Prospero seems overwhelmed by the precocious and willful Miranda. Still, this Prospero’s obvious tenderness for his daughter, and ultimately even for the enemies he has brought to the island, is endearing. And Rudko’s performance, if understated, proves ultimately satisfactory.

Meanwhile, two key supporting characters — Ariel and Caliban — loom unusually large over this somewhat condensed “Tempest,” which clocks in at under two hours with an intermission.

Marybeth Fritzky’s Ariel, who spends the entire play behind the giant overhead screen, is imbued with an omnipotence and omnipresence (at times her voice is projected from various points around the theater), which elevates her to a level very close to the divine as she (at Prospero’s urging) manipulates the action below. Her unorthodox location also gives the production a refreshing twist and offers a reprieve from the sprite fatigue that often dogs Shakespearean productions.

For shear theatric range, Todd Scofield’s Caliban is the true star of this “Tempest.” This feral, beast-like man appears on stage, alternately cowering and menacing, decked in the dirty white garb of a particularly violent mental patient, bloody bandages around his ankles. Director Aaron Posner has omitted Trinculo and Stephano, the king’s servants who conspire with Caliban to kill Prospero, and instead has opted to make them figures in Caliban’s head (he changes voices depending on whom he is channeling). It’s a technique that raises further questions about Caliban’s mental state. Trinculo is represented by an empty wine bottle, while Stephano assumes the form of Caliban’s fist. In the course of Caliban’s interactions with these imaginary friends, the bottle gets in his pants and he ends up kissing his own armpit. Needless to say, this isn’t a production that worries too much about the colonization of the native — namely, Caliban — who as depicted here is a vile creature in need of whatever civilization he can get his hands on.

Many of Folger’s recent productions have suffered from unduly weak young female leads, a deficiency Erin Weaver’s Miranda does not remedy. Weaver has beautiful features that unfortunately appear incapable of registering more than two emotions: an odd mix of 1990s-style girl power feistiness, which is starkly out of place with both the times and setting; and a sort of trembling on the verge of tears rigidity, which never quite finds its release, even when she’s in the presence of her beloved Ferdinand, with whom Prospero has engineered a match.

Miranda’s stiffness, thankfully, does not rub off on Mikaal Sulaiman, who as Ferdinand is able to summon the necessary wonder to project a believably enamored young man. David Toney’s Alonso is a regal monarch — simultaneously quiet and authoritative. And Jim Zidar is delightful as the curmudgeonly and faithful adviser Gonzalo.

Overall, the half-black, half-white cast meshes well — Prospero, his relatives and associates are white, while Alonso and his relations are black. But there’s one rather awkward moment when the black Sebastian (Jefferson Russell) derisively speaks of the black Alonso having lost his daughter “to an African.”

Finally, the costumes for the shipwrecked quintet of Alonso, Sebastian, Ferdinand, Antonio and Gonzalo — all are decked in rather formal tails — seem a slightly incongruous choice. (Prospero and Miranda’s tattered rags would be at home in several different centuries.) The effect is to make the duplicitous Antonio (Michael Allen) come across as a 19th-century gangster of sorts with dark shades, a bowler hat and a particularly lethal cane. It all lends a rather humorous note to the play — although it’s unclear whether that’s what designer Kate Turner-Walker intended.

“The Tempest” runs through June 17 at the Folger Theatre, located at 201 East Capitol St. SE. For ticket information, go to www.folger.edu/theatre.