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EVERY DIRECTOR worth his or her salt wants to do Shakespeare at some point in a career, but in taking on the challenge presented by the ol' Bard, the prospective director faces problems that are frustrating and occasionally insurmountable. William Shakespeare casts a justifiably formidable shadow, even though he died some 360 years ago. All of his plays have been produced too many times to allow real innovation. Thus a director must make the terrible choice of a fairly straightforward, traditional show, or an off-the-wall, modernistic production.
This Hobson's choice has risks in both directions--a traditional show may be too boring, and an avant-garde treatment may be too freaky for popular acceptance. Either way, it's hard to win. An example is the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of Hamlet in 1975. The show featured a fine cast, including Sam Waterston as the prince and Ruby Dee as Gertrude, but their fine performances were underwhelmed by aggressively groovy staging, which featured banks of lights flashing into the audience whenever a climactic moment came to pass,
The same sort of problem torments an otherwise solid production of The Tempest, an Adams-Quincy effort currently running in the Quincy dining hall. Directors Rik Englehardt, Cynthia Raymond and Laura Shiels, while no strangers to the world of Shakespeare (witness Engelhardt's and Shiels' similar production of A Midsummer Night's Dream last spring), tried very hard, perhaps a bit too hard, to make this production original. Their innovations, which include a cast with three Prosperos, three Calibans and three Mirandas (one to act, one to dance, one to mime), are interesting but unwieldy. The cast seems unable to overcome the problems presented by this proliferation of main characters, although two of the three speaking leads and several strong supporting performances save the show. They make it an interesting, if somewhat weird, evening of theater.
The Tempest concerns the passengers and crew of a Neapolitan ship wrecked on a seemingly deserted island, and the deposed duke who brought them there by sorcery. Reality is suffused with magic, and by the end of the play almost all of the characters have trouble distinguishing reality from illusion. This splendid confusion provides a perfect setting for avant-garde theater, in countless scenes where bizarre happenings become the norm. Thus the multiplication of leads is justifiable, even if it does not really work. The triumvirate of directors makes an honest stab at bringing elements of dance and mime into the production. but their efforts tend to be too confusing and ineffective. For example, many of the lines spoken by Miranda (Andrea Eisenberg) and Caliban (Marc Baum) are repeated a bear or two later by their doubles and/or triples. The result is a boring, seemingly endless round-robin effect that slows the tempo and makes it harder for the actors to maintain dramatic tension.
Throughout the first half of the production, the innovative insertions are, with a few exceptions, burdensome and even annoying. Jeff Rothstein as the speaking Prospero saves the first half with a strong, well-modulated voice and a smooth characterization of the nobleman, set adrift years before, who seeks his revenge through sorcery. Marc Baum sparkles as Caliban, the semi-human creature who tries to escape his enslavement to Prospero. Baum bellows and mugs marvelously as the half-sane, half-stupid creature, off-setting weak performances by all three Mirandas, all of whom seem drugged.
The true test of a play's quality lies in the performances of the supporting cast, and the actors of The Tempest all put a maximal effort into their parts. Particularly noteworthy are Johanna Defenderfer and Eva Simmons as Stephano and Trinculo, a pair of fear-stricken, drunken and very funny sailors. Ralph Zito turns in a macho, manic performance as Ariel, the spirit forced to do Prospero's blading. Joe White, as Sebastian, gets off some well-delivered lines, and Paul Rosta is a perfectly doddering, if one-dimensional, old fool as Gonzalo. The rest of the sailors and nobles are adequate, as is the troupe of harpies who pop up sporadically and deliver the most effective mime in the production.
After the intermission, The Tempest begins to click. The turning point may well occur when the harpies emerge to terrify the ship-wrecked crew dressed in amoebic body stockings. The effect, for the first time, is very good, and the production takes off from there, building to a satisfying conclusion. In the final analysis, however, Shakespeare himself makes this show a success, for the script of The Tempest contains an abundance of good lines and absurd situations, all delivered in unique blank verse. The Adams/Quincy troupe rallies around the play and finishes triumphantly; despite some bogus effects, this Tempest is an interesting, innovative production that almost surmounts the difficult challenge that is the legacy of William Shakespeare.
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