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Classical Theatre Company Tackles The Tempest, with Mixed Results

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The setup:

Classical Theatre Company's foray into the thickets of William Shakespeare this season is The Tempest, one of the Bard's most admired and popular plays.

The execution:

In shoehorning The Tempest into the intimate Obsidian Art Space, considerable inventiveness is required, and often provided. The opening shipwreck is adroitly staged with strobe lights and thunderous music, and succeeds as drama.

We next meet Prospero, exiled Duke of Milan and sorcerer, whose brother Alonso usurped his rule and cast him adrift, to end up with his daughter Miranda on an unpopulated island. Twelve years have passed, and Prospero reveals to Miranda, now 15, her origin. Miranda is played by Jacqui Grady, who has a dazzling smile -- it was this smile that buoyed Prospero's spirit when he was cast adrift. Until the shipwreck, Miranda had seen no man except her father, and her later delight in discovering other men is portrayed charmingly.

The lead role of Prospero is played by Philip Lehl, one of Houston's best actors, but he and director John Johnston have steered the characterization toward sincerity instead of power, and I yearned for the glee of Machiavellian guile. The trademarks of Shakespeare are expressive language and vigor, and the vigor is missing. This long early scene is largely exposition, and staging fails to save it -- Lehl does his best, but lighting and sound effects might have been useful. The pace is picked up brilliantly by Blair Knowles as the sprite Ariel, whom Prospero has freed from an enchantment. She in turn enchants the audience with soaring movements and vivacious stage presence, and costume to match.

Dylan Godwin is intoxicating as Stephano, whose antic energy and drunken joy sweep the stage like a whirlwind. He has the rhythm of the language, as do Xzavien Hollins as Antonio, Ted Doolittle as Alonso, and Knowles. Kregg Alan Dailey plays Caliban, the monstrous son of a deceased sorceress, but he fails to convey the requisite deformity; he thunders his lines and is awkward in movement. Input from the director might have made this choice role interesting instead of a scene-killer. Johnston has otherwise found the comic elements and brought them to exciting life.

Prospero wears a multihued skirt of rags, though he had "rich garments" when he came ashore -- 12 years can tatter a garment, but this costuming choice helps to undermine the character. The set is by Jodi Bobrovsky, whose brilliant imagination has brought wonder to so many local stages, but program notes suggest she was asked to reference the floating debris in the oceans, so the backdrop is plastic bottles, broken chairs, ugly plastic; she succeeded far too well. Obsidian Art Space's stage has worked for many varied approaches, but has no raised stage, making it less suitable for this work, where so much action is played on the floor. Unless you're seated in the first row, characters on the floor are not visible because the audience blocks the view of the floor -- a tiered set would have solved this problem.

Director Johnston has opted for the garish in set and costume, rather than the shadowed mystery of magic. The mission of Classical Theatre Company is "boldly re-envisioning classical drama." And they have succeeded in that.

The verdict:

Classical Theatre Company is to be commended for tackling one of the Bard's most difficult plays, and its approach here succeeds in many ways. Some brilliant performances and some inventive staging make it well worth a visit.

The Tempest continues through April 29, presented by Classical Theatre Company at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak in the Heights. For information or ticketing, call 713-963-9665 or contact www.classicaltheatre.org.

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