Bare-bones Shakespeare Is All About Interpretation: A `Tempest' Falls Short

Posted: November 10, 1998

The most dispiriting sort of Shakespeare production isn't the one that's blatantly misconceived, nor the one in which the actors haven't the chops to execute an arresting overall idea. It's the one that appears not to have been conceived at all, the one that not only casts no fresh light on the play but also leaves the actors adrift in alien territory without signposts or landmarks.

Such a production, unfortunately, is on view in the community hall of Holy Communion Lutheran Church, 2111 Sansom St., where the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival is staging The Tempest through Nov. 29. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge, this is not an awful Tempest; it's simply a dull and unnecessary one, presented on a three-quarters-round stage without a scrap of scenery save a wooden chest and, for a time, a blue ground cloth that the actors tend to trip over.

Bare-bones Shakespeare demands both a clear vision of the entire text and performers who can energize it solely with words and gestures. At least three of the players in this Tempest have done much admirable work over the years. But, lacking a governing vision of what the play is about, they're able to conjure only flat, by-the-book characters with scant relationship to one another.

Consider, for instance, Tim Moyer's Prospero, the onetime duke of Milan exiled to a God-forsaken island. He's clearly a very angry man, but there's little shading or dimension to his anger. As Caliban, the misshapen creature Prospero keeps in service, a bare-chested David Ingram parlays a simian lope and a lot of frenetic activity into the merest semblance of an interpretation. As the venerable counselor Gonzalo, the estimable Michael Toner totters about in a minor role that seems too old for him.

The cast's less familiar actors fare no better. Kirk Wendell Brown invests Ariel, the sprite, with neither spriteliness nor any quality that might serve the character equally well. (He also tends to declaim the play's most musical lines.) The lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda, are one-dimensional; the sozzled servants, Stephano and Trinculo, are ploddingly tiresome; and the king of Naples and his retinue merely fill space.

While two or three of the performers probably wouldn't be up to their roles under any circumstances, several might well be perfectly fine in a production that allowed them to understand their characters and how they fit into an overarching scheme. This is not that production.

It's also lamentably cheesy in its physical aspects - the ersatz thunder; the masque that only the actors can see; the sound effects and music awkwardly integrated into the whole; the puny blue ``banquet'' that, to amend a line from The Odd Couple, is either very new plastic or very old meat.

No sense of magic or wonderment informs this Tempest - and that, in a production with more than its share of failings, may be the biggest of all.

THE TEMPEST Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Eleanor Holdridge; set by Hiroshi Iwasaki; costumes by Jenny Fulton; lighting by Pete Jakubowski; music by John Lionarons. Presented by the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival.

The cast:

Prospero - Tim Moyer

Miranda - Kim Waldauer

Caliban - David Ingram

Ariel - Kirk Wendell Brown

Ferdinand - Leonard Kelly

Antonio - Ralph Edmonds

Alonso - Mort Paterson

Sebastian - Tom Cleary

Gonzalo - Michael Toner

Stephano - Bruce Robinson

Trinculo - John Zak

Francisco - John Bellomo

Playing at: Holy Communion Lutheran Church community hall, 2111 Sansom St., through Nov. 29. Tickets: $15. Information: 215-569-9700.

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