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Shakespeare's The Tempest: Not a Lot to the Plot But the Telling Is Grand

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The set-up: Shakespeare's final play that he wrote solo (he would go on to collaborate with protege John Fletcher on All is True, Cardenio, and The Two Noble Kinsmen), The Tempest shows off the master playwright in full authoritative control. An intriguing tale of magic, potency, and forgiveness, this is light entertainment, but full fathoms deep.

Woven throughout with songs and dances, elaborate stage effects, and a most dreamy atmosphere, the play's like a courtly masque, which was much in fashion at the time, c. 1611. As it's so light and airy, this original romance might be a throwaway, except for Shakespeare's razor sharp theatrical flair, luminous character sense, psychological insight, and, needless to say, sublime way with words. Conjuring its own special magic, this ethereal play has virtually no plot, but is nonetheless mesmerizing, transfixing each new generation with its retelling.

The execution: On an uncharted isle, Prospero (John Kaiser), the deposed Duke of Milan, rules by sorcery. Not that there are many to command: teenage virginal daughter Miranda (Helen Rios), the love of his life; Ariel (Mai Le), a spirit of air and fire he released from her tree prison many years ago and now serves faithfully in hopes of being granted her freedom; and half-beast Caliban (Kurt Bilanoski), slave to Prospero, who desperately wants to rule the island himself.

The old wizard raises up a tempest which wrecks the ship of Alonso (David Chapin), the King of Naples, which carries Prospero's hated brother Antonio (Wayne White), who many years ago usurped the duke with the help of the King. Crafty Prospero has lured them to his magic island to restore his throne. On board is the King's son Ferdinand (Kaleb Babb), for whom Prospero has plans. Below deck, lowlifes Trinculo (Michael Raabe) and Stephano (Elyse Rachal) add comic relief, while courtiers Gonzalo (Casey Coale), the Duke's trusty old retainer, and snarky Sebastian (Neil Courington), brother to Alonso, add sparks of their own. Prospero directs the action, hoping the outcome will be as he predicts. Thwarted murder plots, young budding romance, and "spirits to enforce" are all part of the intriguing mix, which never veers too close to unhappiness without a spry wink from the playwright. Shadows disperse with a wave of a hand.

Perhaps drawing inspiration from Ariel's "I have made you mad," director/scenic designer L. Robert Westeen has set his production for Company OnStage in a mental hospital with patients, doctors, and visitors already on stage when we enter the theater. It's a harsh reality that bookends the work's entrancing magic. A manic patient wails with laughter; doctors confer; a nurse dispenses pills; a young man sulks with his wrists bandaged; an old man chats with his young pretty visitor; a man in begrimed pajamas broods with head in hands.

While this Marat/Sade-esque take on The Tempest doesn't irreparably rend the play's gossamer, it doesn't illuminate it either. It's a director's concept not the Bard's, although the hospital green walls, in fact, bespeak the sea, of which is play is replete; those gauzy privacy curtains are put to good use in scene changes and reveals; and Prospero's "magic cloak" is a straightjacket. And once the play begins, Shakespeare takes over anyway, and the madhouse idea is left by the wayside. Westeen ties it up neatly at the end, though, when Prospero, having effected everything he wants, pleads in his epilogue for release, pardon, and "let your indulgence set me free." The doctors (a.k.a., the nobles from Naples) sign his release and he walks free from the asylum.

Kaiser gives an improvisational quality to the wily old magician. He commands, but in soft style, a wiser gentler necromancer. We don't doubt his power, for as he swings his cane over his head all fall under his spell and do his bidding. With clear diction and breezy manner, his Prospero is most sweet. When he forgives his treacherous brother and the other co-conspirators, he's very personable, unwilling to hold a grudge or wreck vengeance. In his sure hands, Shakespeare sings with sympathy. Bilanoski, as conflicted Caliban, the wild man/beast under the whim of Prospero, rises to meet Kaiser. Usually depicted as some sort of grotesque gargoyle, here he's a tattered Robinson Crusoe, not knowing at all how to get what he wants other than through wanton violence. Taught to read and think by Prospero and Miranda, he once attempted to rape Miranda, turning Prospero against him. There's more than monster in him, for Shakespeare gives him poetic descriptive passages of the island and his dreams of freedom that ache with beauty and sympathy. Bilanoski brings all this out with clarity of style and insight.

Le's Ariel is spiderweb light, flicking about the stage in her white unitard with skirt of streamers. Her hair's pulled up in a distinctive topknot, and streaks of white tattoo her face. She prances, crouches, kicks, and spins, but her natural rush sometimes overpowers Shakespeare's words, which get lost in the frenetic action. When she quiets down, her Ariel is immensely likeable. Rios's Miranda is most believable in her romance scenes with Babb's infatuated Fernando, an innocent on a first-date high, but she doesn't fully connect in those early scenes with dad (opening night jitters?).

The nobles are a sorry lot, ill at ease with Shakespeare's lilt or meaning. More rehearsal, perhaps? Eternal optimist Gonzalo, oblivious to others' taunts, is nicely etched by Coale, but he plays it so quiet and reserved it's difficult to hear him, even in OnStage's intimate space. The rustics, Trinculo and Stephano, are oddly matched. Raabe overlays the court jester with pouty moues and fey gestures like a parody drag queen; while Rachal's drunk butler parties hearty in male drag. Their comedy scenes fall flat, even with the clever visual gags that have Caliban, bedsheet wrapped around him, drawing Stephano's wheelchair as if a chariot, and everyone drinking their "sack" out of icebags and hot water bottles.

Especially fun-filled are the musical interludes that include Tony Bennett's "Stranger in Paradise," The Chordettes' "Mr. Sandman," The Crew Cuts' "Life Would Be a Dream," Perry Como's "Round, Round, Round." Shakespeare's fragrant lyrics are still here, especially Ariel's water nymph tune, "Full Fathom Five," but more care has gone into the selection of the '50s numbers than getting convincing performances out of the supporting cast. The verdict: A unique work in the canon, The Tempest proves itself whether set in a mental ward or on Mars. If you've never seen this play live, Company OnStage's uneven production can't sink the unsinkable. Kaiser and Bilanoski see to that; Shakespeare does the rest.

The Tempest continues through November 8 at Company OnStage, 536 Westbury. Purchase tickets online at www.companyonstage.org or call 713-726-1219. $15.

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