Shakespeare's last play is ably acted, but the staging lacks heart
Reviewed by Avimaan Syam, Fri., Sept. 17, 2010
Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside, 457-5100 www.austinshakespeare.org
Through Sept. 26
Running time: 2 hr., 10 min.
The Tempest has always struck me as Shakespeare's most personal play. It's generally accepted to be the last play he wrote by himself and is one of only a handful of his plays that doesn't have a single source text as its inspiration.
The inescapable feel of a man looking back on his life permeates The Tempest: Prospero acts as a man less concerned with how the world will remember him than how he will judge himself when the last chapter of his book is closed. He is undisputed king of his tiny isle, yet nothing seems good enough for him. Read those statements as about the Bard instead of Prospero, and you can see what weighed upon the author's conscience as he wrote, "And thence retire me to Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave."
Austin Shakespeare wades into the bittersweet world of magic, love, and loss that is The Tempest. The play tells the tale of Prospero, the deposed duke of Milan who concentrated on his studies of magic and the occult more than his daily duties to his kingdom. Twelve years later, a ship bearing his usurping brother and other villains involved in his overthrow sails near the island he now rules, allowing Prospero his first chance at escape or revenge or both.
Austin Shakespeare's production kicks off with an intense, ethereal shipwreck. Fog pumps down from above onto a barely lit stage, figures struggle against the severity of the storm, and a genuine feeling of fear swells into the audience as the fog wends its way over them. As the dark electricity of the shipwreck subsides, Prospero and Miranda are only partially visible in the thick, white haze that cloaks the theatre. The otherworldly nature of The Tempest hung thick around the Rollins Theatre at that moment.
That effusive intro, though, was as evocative as the production would get. Though competent, cohesive, and ably performed, Austin Shakespeare's staging lacks that heart, that spark, that ineffable feeling that absorbs you into the world you're watching. It never feels not like a play, if that makes sense. I never felt drawn into its world.
Part of this is due to a difficult script piecing together fairly disparate storylines and lengthy speeches. But what unites this play is the ubiquitous Prospero, a puppet master dealing with revenge and loss. This is a man who is losing the daughter that has been the light of his life since his usurpation. A man giving up a spirit that he saved and has been his dearest servant. A man who is giving up the books that consumed his life for so many years. A man so tired and harried that he almost forgets the plot on his life being spearheaded by his monstrous servant Caliban. Life as he has known it is at great peril, something that Austin Shakespeare's production is sorely lacking.
Steve Shearer, playing Prospero, has an undeniable presence on stage. Clearly he can act, and act well. And his two closest confidants, Ariel and daughter Miranda, are performed quite admirably by Shaun Patrick Tubbs and Lindsley Howard, respectively. The direction by Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella leaves something to be desired, then: Caliban feels like a cartoon villain when placed next to the wildly besotted Trinculo and Stephano, who play to the extremity of drunken stereotypes (although in fairness Nathan Jerkins is stellar as Stephano). There's no danger there. And while the special effects of the shipwreck were stunning, the videography created for the goddesses' speeches in Act IV comes across like a New Age infomercial for some mellow pagan cult.
The Tempest is a stranger script than most of Shakespeare's, but its oddities are what make it so special, so unique. When Prospero says that "every third thought shall be my grave" in this production, it comes out of nowhere. Austin Shakespeare's staging hits the high points but lacks the heart with which the Bard imbued his last play.