The Tempest
Bare Theatre
Closed Feb. 15 @ Common Ground Theatre
Feb. 21-22 @ Holly Springs Cultural Arts Center

Director Carmen-maria Mandley promises that her Bare Theatre take on The Tempest will be a “wild ride,” awash in music and words, as actors “attack” Shakespeare’s text “with whole body.”

Heather Hackford certainly makes good on that as the spirit Ariel. Her birdlike dance movements and unrelenting physicality make her believably alien as the play’s transformative agent. With simple props, she single-handedly concocts the storm in the first scene, exciting the imagination that brave new stagings are to come.

It was somewhat disappointing, then, that the setting for this production turned out to be so ploddingly traditional, with period costumes a blend of Ren Faire, commedia dell’arte, and odd ahistorical items that seemed to have been pulled out of a costumer’s grab bag. The deckhands from Scene One double as stagehands, injecting Pirates of the Caribbean-style humor between scenes, but via this constant disruption of the illusion of the island’s enchantments, they beat Prospero’s famous closing monologue to the punch. Likewise, a few road bumps in stage direction (such as when Miranda treats Prospero’s magic mantle as if it were a bathrobe), misconstrued idioms, actor adlibs and cross-gender casting all seemed accidental, rather than calculated to enhance the play’s inherent merits.

The Harpy/Goddesses, who came in a lovely variety of fleshy shapes and sizes, did weave the intended spell, but all in all there was not enough magic on this island. The dint of will with which Ariel propels this ship forward was mirrored in the dedication and energy of all the actors, especially Seth Blum’s Caliban and the young lovers, Miranda (Charlotte Pate) and Ferdinand (Andrew Heil), but this physical approach too often led to overwrought speech and gestures. It was as if they were speaking louder to communicate with foreigners, when what is needed to modernize Shakespeare is an act of translation. The jester Trinculo (Richard Butner) speaks his lines entirely in a forced falsetto, which doesn’t allow him to sufficiently inflate his lungs, let alone this dangerously flat character of a buffoon.

One is reminded, ultimately, of what a strange play The Tempest is: a colonial fairy tale with almost no plot and heavy exposition, not to mention Prospero’s unsavory aspects as conniver and slavemaster, a man eager to guard his daughter’s virtue, yet more than willing to use her affections to cement political alliances. There was no such ambiguity in Matt Schedler’s Prospero, who played it safe as a sort of chubby Gandalf, a goodly, graying mage. The Tempest‘s central conceit, about dramatic artifice as a sort of magic, falls flat unless we first grant these characters some credible interior life. Rather than a blur of illusions, this relatively short play might better charm its audience into calm reflection. This is a play that might and should leave modern audiences uneasy, with more questions than neatly tied-up answers.