Brainstorms In `Tempest' Come To Little Two Fine Ideas Go Undeveloped.

Posted: March 18, 1997

The opening scene of Louis Rackoff's new production of The Tempest, on view through April 12 at the People's Light & Theatre Company, makes you eager to see what follows. On a platform at stage right, the magician Prospero is writing the story you're about to witness, complete with stage directions and introductory dialogue:

Master: Boatswain, -

Boatswain: Here, master; what cheer?

And immediately we hear those words shouted as a storm breaks, hurling master, boatswain, and their assorted passengers about the stage while Ariel, Prospero's sprite, conjures the thunder by rattling a tin sheet. But Ariel is not one figure but three, two women and a man, who wear white robes and speak Shakespeare's lyrical verse sometimes alternately, sometimes in unison. Clearly, we're meant to see Ariel not merely as a doer of magic but as the essence of magic - and, in trading work for liberty, the essence of all creatures' desire to be free.

I liked that idea. And I liked the succeeding scene as well, when Stephen Novelli's Prospero tells his daughter, Miranda, of how he was exiled to this enchanted island and how, at last, fate has brought his enemies to him on the ship he has caused to founder. Novelli, a notably introspective Prospero in an Arden Theatre Company production four seasons back, has joined the awareness of mortality he projected in that earlier portrayal with a firm sense of purpose - a sense that, as the author of this wondrous tale, his Prospero knows precisely where he's going and how he's going to get there. It is a fine performance.

It needs to be, for the production as a whole is better in the conception than in the execution. The three Ariels, and the notion of Prospero setting down the story as it unfolds, are splendid ideas - but that's all they are, for Rackoff never really develops them. You want him to make something of Prospero's authorial role, but he simply repeats it. You want the Ariels' interplay with Prospero and each other to be ethereal, sensuous and full of wonder, but too often it's just awkward.

For a production that seems to promise so much enchantment, in fact, this Tempest is surprisingly earthbound. The solo cello that punctuates the production is only intermittently effective, and the visions that Prospero conjures for his enemies are tame stuff - although I did appreciate Rackoff's idea of replacing the verbose wedding masque staged for Miranda and her lover, Ferdinand, with passages drawn from elsewhere in Shakespeare.

Under these circumstances, it may be little surprise that the production is nearly stolen by those drunken castaways Stephano and Trinculo (Paul Meshejian and Christopher Patrick Mullen) and their accomplice, the monster Caliban (Benjamin Lloyd). Their greedy, bibulous journey through the play is a consistent delight.

I do, however, question Rackoff's decision to make Caliban positively cute, of all things, and to play him almost entirely for laughs. Granted, it can't be easy to create a credible stage monster in an age when every other movie house is inhabited by a superrealistic Thing or Blob, but I'm not persuaded that the solution is simply to give up. Caliban is, after all, ``a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick,'' a deformed mutant representing irredeemable evil. To represent him otherwise is to lose a substantial part of the play.

In addition to Prospero and the tipsy plotters, one portrayal stands out - Benjamin White's Ferdinand, an endearingly sweet, wonder-struck lad who could do with stronger support than he receives from Bridget Jones' Miranda. Prospero's stranded foes, the King of Naples and his retinue, are indifferently performed and directed, a fact that further unbalances the production.

The stepped, sheeted set by James F. Pyne Jr. serves the show well, as do Marla J. Jurglanis' costumes and Jerold R. Forsyth's lighting. And the end of the play, when Prospero renounces his magic and determines once more to take his chances in a world with no guarantees, is as effective as ever it was. An amazing thing, The Tempest - as amazing as life itself.

THE TEMPEST Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Louis Rackoff; set by James F. Pyne Jr.; costumes by Marla J. Jurglanis; lighting by Jerold R. Forsyth; music by David Bishop.

The cast:

Prospero - Stephen Novelli

Miranda - Bridget Jones

Ariel - Gregory Lamont Allen, Kathryn Petersen, Ceal Phelan

Caliban - Benjamin Lloyd

Alonso - Robert Beatty, Jr.

Ferdinand - Benjamin White

Antonio - John Douglas Thompson

Sebastian - Leonard Haas

Gonzalo - Louis Lippa

Stephano - Paul Meshejian

Trinculo - Christopher Patrick Mullen

Cellist - Carolyn Ellman

Playing at: People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, through April 12. Tickets are $20 and $25. Information: 610-644-3500.

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