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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Tempest’

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In the windiest week in years, a very fine production of “The Tempest” blew into town.

Director Kathleen McKinley delivers a beguiling production of the Shakespeare classic at Fresno State’s John Wright Theatre. From the storm-tossed chaos of the opening scenes to the tender valedictory passages at the end as the magic-wielding Prospero relinquishes his powers, this production resonates with a breezy competence and a knowing heart.

McKinley calls her interpretation of the work “modern eclectic,” and at first, the crispness of the production’s vibe — achieved with pulsing ambient music, costumes with a captivating non-Elizabethan flair, brisk blocking and a wonderful revolving metal contraption of a set — might seem at odds with the lushness of the material. This is an island, after all, even if one chooses to think of it as a gritty and barren one, and the production design initially seems too industrial-sterile for a tale that seems so close to the earth.

But the tone of the production and the care with which McKinley has lavished on it go a long way toward warming it up. I found myself increasingly drawn to this show. (It continues 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.)

Key to that warmth is Terry Lewis, an actor with a long community-theater resume, who gives a pleasing performance as Prospero. There are interesting layers to his characterization.

On the one hand, the exiled Prospero — who in the play’s opening moments has used his magic to create a storm that brings his longtime enemies to the island upon which he and his daughter have languished for years — is obviously an extremely competent individual. In his banishment he’s not only survived but figured out a way to harness the island’s supernatural elements to his advantage, including the spirit Ariel (an effective and highly physical Ryan Christopher Woods). The play has often been given a “postcolonial” interpretation, pointing out Prospero’s role as white colonizer who subjugates the native population. There’s a fierceness to Lewis’ characterization that captures this sense of control and grit.

And yet, there’s something gentle about him as well. For years, I’ve watched Lewis mostly in musical theater, and those years of experience serve him well — in the way he moves on stage, in the sensitivity of his scenes with his beloved daughter, Miranda (a feisty and well-played Kia Vassiliades, who consistently makes acting choices that give us more than a mere love-starved maiden), and especially in his ability to make the text “sing” even when it’s spoken.

In the production’s best subplot, Prospero arranges to set up Miranda with the young Ferdinand (dextrously played by Aaron J. McGee), one of the shipwrecked unfortunates. (A favorite moment: when the meddling Ariel plops his feet upon the kneeling Ferdinand as if he’s putting his feet on an ottoman.)

It helps that Ian Loveall’s clever set, a sturdy structure of intertwined circular staircases that rotates slowly as a unit from one scene to the next, provides so many angles and levels for the actors to romp. (Interestingly, Ariel is often positioned higher than Prospero on stage, offering a twist on the expected master-servant relationship.) Izzy Einsidler’s lighting design is key in providing a textured mood and supernatural ambiance to the surroundings, as does Jerry Phanthamany’s sound design. Elizabeth R. Payne’s costumes — from Prospero’s preening magic cloak to the crisp khakis of the grunting military types who have been swept upon the island — have a tantalizing, slightly off-kilter feel.

Another subplot, featuring Shakespeare’s low-brow comedy, is given a crisp comic sheen by Magnus Chhan as Stephano and Dillon Morgan as Trinculo (pictured), who cavort with accomplished silliness. Matthew Rudolf Schiltz’s portrayal of Caliban, the son of a witch who embarks with the pair in a misguided attempt to murder Prospero, is a highlight of the production, finding within his character’s angry bluster a depth of humanity.

The third major subplot, involving five of Prospero’s shipwrecked political foes, is a little weaker compared to the other two, but it holds its own. In keeping with the eclectic vibe of the play, McKinley transforms the character of Antonio, Prospero’s brother, into Antonia, his sister. Kelsey C. Oliver, in an intriguing performance, finds swagger and ambiguity in this realigned role, and her conspiratorial scenes flicker with a brute, fascinating, sexual-tinged tension.

Topping off the ambiance is a determined trio of spirits (Elisa Alpizar, Taylor Abels and Molly Kent), whose singing — in clear, determined notes free of vibrato — offers yet another impressive layer to this production. With voices like these, who wouldn’t be lured to this island? It might take a huge gust of wind for the majority of the characters to wind up in “The Tempest,” but this well-crafted university production makes you glad that it’s so easy to walk to the box office.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Tempest’"

Stephen says:

The better the show, the better written your reviews are, Donald, and this is one REALLY well written piece.

I guess I’d better ensure I see this show!