The opening also sets the course of the actor playing the lead role in Shakespeare's romance. He must make Prospero authoritative, commanding of attention, and Frank X does. Tapping into his natural intensity and sensitivity, the veteran Philadelphia performer presents a Prospero with a strong, decisive personality, one who seems to be willing events to happen more than relying on the character's considerable magic powers, yet one who also is attuned to the needs and failings of the human condition.
It is a dominating, vital portrayal, setting the pattern for director Charles McMahon's straightforward production, strong on performance but a bit weak on atmosphere.
One of the most fetching elements in the presentation is the strong bond between Prospero and his daughter Miranda, a consequence not only of Frank X's humane depiction but the sweetly innocent, endearing Miranda created by Letitia Lange. Lange's almost childlike character works better as the devoted, trusting daughter than the young woman smitten with love for an equally swooning Ferdinand (Ahren Potratz), but that aspect also has its charms.
Erin Brese's Ariel seems less an unworldly sprite doing Prospero's bidding than an efficient executive assistant who likes her boss and is doing her best to help him realize his objectives. It's an unusual take on the play's omnipresent facilitator, but it works.
Tony Lawton's bald-headed Caliban is more thug than monster, but if the character doesn't seem strange enough for the part, Lawton's intensity and energy serve him well in the humorous scenes Caliban shares with Stephano (Paul L. Nolan) and Trinculo (Dave Jadico). They form an effective comic trio, but as is often the case in Tempest productions, we are treated to too much of their drunken foolishness.
All three actors double in roles to form - along with Brian Anthony Wilson's solemn King of Naples - the group of noblemen, Prospero's former friends and enemies that he causes to be shipwrecked on his island. The doubling is necessary for a small theater seeking to save money, but the noblemen's scenes aren't as effective as they might be, and the obvious doubling makes the already small-stage island feel almost claustrophobic.
Although Nick Embree's viney hill creates an exotic atmosphere at one end of the playing space, much of the performance takes place in front of it, where the view for many in the audience is other members of the audience seated on the other side. This prospect seriously erodes the illusion, evoked by the set and Janet Embree's lighting, that one is on an island in far-flung climes.
Nick Embree needs to be commended for the fine sorcerer's staff, the symbolic repository of his puissant magic, that he carved for Prospero to carry. It is an impressive, handsome piece of sculpture that visually enhances the character's authority, but it presents director McMahon with a problem. In most productions, when Prospero abjures his magic at the play's end, he dramatically breaks his staff. Here, carrying a staff that no one would want to snap, Prospero quietly sets it aside.
Somehow it's not the same.
Contact theater critic Douglas J. Keating at 215-854-5609 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by William Shakespeare, directed by Charles McMahon, settings by Nick Embree, costumes by K.J. Gilmer, lighting by Janet Embree, sound by Nick Rye. Presented by Lantern Theater Company.
The cast: Frank X (Prospero), Letitia Lange (Miranda), Erin Brese (Ariel), Ahren Potratz (Ferdinand), Brian Anthony Wilson (King of Naples), Tony Lawton (Caliban/Gonzalo), Paul L. Nolan (Antonio/Stephano), Dave Jadico (Trinculo/Sebastian).
Playing at: St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, through May 4. Tickets are $15 to $25. Information: 215-829-9002 or www.lanterntheater.org.