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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Tempest’

tempest

The Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of “The Tempest” had a rough opening Thursday night at Woodward Park.

Very rough.

This production wasn’t ready for an audience. Awkward pauses, lethargic pacing, forgotten lines and a turgid advance through what should be an airy, magical narrative marred the evening. The production had some strong points in terms of choreography and costume and sound design, but the most important aspect of any Shakespeare play — the text — was often problematic among an array of cast members. I fear that director Julie Ann Keller got too absorbed in the movement and design of the show and didn’t make sure her actors were well versed in the fundamentals.

The evening got off to vigorous start with the traditional storm sequence referred to in the title depicted with a blustery visual appeal, complete with swaying sails and a nice sense of tempestuous movement among the ensemble cast.

Keller is adept at using movement to convey both abstract and concrete narrative moments. (I particularly like a scene later in the show when the shipwrecked party is lulled to sleep.) In addition to the “Shapes” that Shakespeare mentions in the text — an ensemble that Keller deftly choreographs – she also puts the spotlight on two dancers who offer more focused, ballet-influenced moves. Keller’s sound design helps create an ethereal mood, and Celeste Saldivar’s costumes are an inspired contrast between shipwrecked finery and earthy garb.  

But the text and narrative suffers. An early scene between Prospero (Richard Adamson), the central character, whose magical manipulations on the island upon which he has been stranded form the core of the play, and his daughter, Miranda (a strong Bridget Martin), was painful. Adamson blanked on his lines, and lingering silences ensued. I felt for him. Adamson was able to recover — and Martin was able to remain in character, trying to connect with him — but the damage was done. It was like dropping a few thousand feet in an airplane just after takeoff: You’re pleased when 1) you don’t crash and 2) things get better, but there’s still anxiety until you land.

If Adamson’s blanking out had been an isolated incident in terms of the text of the play, it could have been more easily dismissed, but there were issues throughout. Adamson later had other moments when his delivery lacked confidence. Others actors fell prey to that, too, with pauses and stumbles common.

At other times the issue isn’t so much a lack of confidence but overblown self-indulgence. (Two transgressors are Jim Gunn as Antonio, Prospero’s conniving brother, and Broderic Beard, as Ferdinand, both of whom should have been much more firmly directed.)

The play’s famed drunken characters, Trinculo (GJ Thelin) and Stephano (Robert Daniels) can get away with a lot more in terms of a loosy-goosy delivery — and the actors get some  laughs — but their performances could be more controlled and focused. (And funnier.) 

Joshua Taber is an impressive and dynamic Ariel, the airy spirit controlled by Prospero, and I liked his command of the text. Still, much of the nuance of “The Tempest” seems lost in this production, from Ariel’s aching wistfulness about his subjugation to the finely wrought magnanimity and forgiveness of Prospero that should brighten the ending with a valedictory glow.

I’ve seen “The Tempest” at least four times, including a wonderful production a couple of years ago at Fresno State. Because of the problems with the text and the shaping of the narrative in this production, I found it hard to track the storyline despite my familiarity. I think people unfamiliar with the play might be mystified.

The production continues through Sept. 20. I hope it gets better.

Pictured: Caliban (Abbygail Williams), Stephano (Robert Daniels), Ariel (Josh Taber), and Trincula (G.J. Thelin)

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘The Tempest’"

Thornton Davidson says:

“You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.” Obviously, it is the critic’s job to curse if what he sees offends him — but truly there is no profit in it, as even Caliban knows. While I have long admired Mr. Munro’s dedication to local theatre and his perceptive reviews, he is wrong to review multi-performanced plays on the first or second showing. It disables his positive reviews as much as his negative ones.

WSF is, at heart, community theatre. What that means, despite the conviction of the critic that the work should be ready upon his taking his seat, is that the play improves with each performance — or should. In the case of The Tempest, Thursday’s performance enjoyed some roughness not implicit in the tale. But, had Mr. Munro ventured out on Friday or Saturday night, he would have seen an entirely different, and frankly better, play.

So, on behalf of the performers, tech crew, director, stage designers, and supporters of WSF, I would ask Mr. Munro that when initial performances are obviously, recognizably theatrically unprepared, maybe it would profit him to pocket his curses and give the show a chance to gel. His call that he ‘hopes the show gets better’ indicts a review which sadly, once printed, cannot. Otherwise, his readers might assume, to quote Prospero, that his reviews are his “dukedom large enough.”

Indeed, The Tempest is already better. Go see it.

James Sherrill says:

So, you’re saying that audiences shouldn’t bother attending opening weekend? I’ll jot that down for future reference.

Mr. Munro did not write his review based on a closed preview or a dress rehearsal. He attended a performance and witnessed what the rest of the audience witnessed. He is under no obligation to “give a show a chance to gel.” In fact, I would be upset if critics DIDN’T speak the truth of what they experience.

If we want people to be excited to see our work, we must do work that is exciting – it’s that simple. It would have been better to delay opening The Tempest if principal actors are forgetting lines or the show is otherwise not up to snuff. Whether a theater company is professional or “community” is irrelevant. We must have higher standards of ourselves or we will fail.

Thornton Davidson says:

As the President of the Woodward Shakespeare Festival, I am exhilarated by the high standards to which our viewing public holds us. Certainly, we have endeavored with every play over the last 10 years to provide the best productions possible on opening night. But it is in the very nature of a purely volunteer organization, despite the lofty standards we set, to better ourselves with each performance. To pretend otherwise is to ignore reality and believe amateurs are just unpaid professionals. We are indeed amateurs and revel in that designation, seeking at the same time to give our audiences as much transport, bliss, and excitement as theatre can provide. That has always been our goal. Community theatre, Mr. Robinson, is not an evasion, a lowering of standards nor a dirty word. That our actors, directors, and crew, bring these productions to life while contributing for free all of their time, asking only that the audience attend (and contribute what they like), is at the heart of what we do. “Community” is what makes the process joyful, healthy, and evolving.

To my mind a critic’s role is more than to impress on wax a single performance. If that were all, each of us is a critic and criticism is nothing more than normative reportage. I am a true admirer of Mr. Munro — he has theatre in his veins and generally knows what works and does not in a musical or play. But in order for a critic’s criticism to resonate beyond the “truth” of a single performance, he must allow us to slip into the chair next to him and by the pleasure or prickliness of his company, gain a sense of how we will, should we attend, enjoy — or not — the piece. A great review is organic; it should grow on us as we experience the performance second hand until we are driven to experience it ourselves. When I slid down next to Mr. Munro’s experience, I learned he didn’t like what he saw, and also what specific conceptions he had for the characters, which according to him were not realized. The province of the critic is to do more than open a cubby into his own likes and dislikes; he must open wide the doors, using his strong knowledge and clear preferences to allow us to sniff out the whole meal — not just the slices from which he nibbles.

Good community theatre grows, expands, and betters itself nightly. The Tempest is good theatre, to which I would invite you — in the best spirit of amateur theatre, with open arms.

Kristin C says:

You didn’t have this much to say about Mr. Munro’s style of review when your company was getting good reviews.

I’m glad that at least one of your company knows how to take a review with the grace that he has. The fact is, we all get bad reviews, ones that we don’t agree with, or ones where we say, ‘Damn, I wish he had come yesterday’, but we take them for what they are and we move on. If you believe the good reviews, then you have to believe the bad as well, and most of the time we are probably more in the middle than either anyway.

Bruce Robinson says:

Oh, Thornton…..
Since you are so fond of quoting the Bard, try this one: Better to keep silent, and be thought a fool, than to speak, and remove all doubt.
You actually chose to fault the critic, for reviewing the show, on opening night…… wow.

Think how much better it would have played had you simply said, “We were bad that night.
We will be better, and we are better. Come see for yourselves, Fresno.”
Too late.

Kristin C says:

Ummm, nope. The performance had audience there, it wasn’t sold as a Preview night. The company had plenty of advance notice of when the show was opening. Have I been in productions that weren’t ready on Opeing Night? Yes. Did I, or the company, try to justify bad reviews by saying, ‘Obviously, it’s opening night, of course we’re not ready’? Nope.

Caroline says:

I just can’t disagree more. First of all please don’t open a show that isn’t ready. Whether it is community, professional, or educational. Also as my grandma always told me “lack of preparation on your part is no cause for palpitations on mine!” It seems utterly ridiculous to expect someone to rearrange their schedule to accommodate an unprepared production. Do you really value the time and energy of your patrons so cheaply that they should come TWICE in order to get a good show? It seems in your response that you don’t disagree with WHAT he said but just that he said it at all? So you are upset with a reviewer for….reviewing the show he saw?
If a show isn’t ready don’t open it. Otherwise it can’t be considered anything BUT fair game. It isn’t his fault you put jello salad on the menu and then served up a watery mess.

Bruce Robinson says:

“WSF is, at heart, community theatre” betrays a profound lack of understanding of the process, the creed theatre itself.
Every project, performance, company, to which I have had the pleasure of making a contribution, have worked with the general understanding that opening night is a deadline set in stone.
The audience is taking time out of their day, paying real currency(or making donations)….
We owe it to them to do our damndest to give them our very best.
If the show wasn’t ready, it’s best to just own it, and learn from mistakes….

” While I have long admired Mr. Munro’s dedication to local theatre and his perceptive reviews, he is wrong to review multi-performanced plays on the first or second showing.”
Ahem….. that’s when the critic ALWAYS shows up. Opening night is when most show get some of their largest audiences….
Should the audience just wait, and maybe see the show later, when they”….would have seen an entirely different, and frankly better, play.”?

Richard Adamson says:

Though it is not usually the prerogative of the reviewed to comment upon the review or the reviewer, I should like to share my perspective on both the review and the comments it has engendered.

First of all. Mr. Munro was correct. I gave a terrible performance Thursday night. I “dried up”…. it goes rather beyond just fluffing a line, It is when panic takes over and suddenly the work of the last four months learning the text goes out the window. Thank goodness my colleague had presence of mine to feed me a cue and get us back on track, but as the review quite clearly states, the damage was done and the rest of the performance was thrown off kilter.

Anyone who attended Friday or Saturday night’s subsequent performance can testify to the fact that I have my lines memorized. I suffered from a bad case of “opening night jitters”. I am an actor with over forty years of experience, but my niche has normally been playing the “fat and the funny” or the sneering villain. The role of Prospero is quite daunting, It has as many lines as King Lear. It scared me when the director offered me the role and it continues to scare me. This is not an excuse for drying up. That is an unfortunate thing that happens to some stage actors from time to time. As I get older it seems to happen more often. Sadly the days of prompters are long gone and if it happens one is left with egg on ones face.

I do apologize to the members of the audience that came Thursday night. It was not my best performance. But it is live theater and not a movie. Neither I nor the director could shout “cut! Take two!” Life upon the wicked stage is always a gamble. and on Thursday night I lost. Sadly so did the audience that had to experience it. That audience included Mr. Munro and what he wrote reflected the performance he experienced and his reaction to that performance.

Would that we could “not open a production” as was suggested by another commentator. I have both performed in and directed theater works that should probably have been postponed. The reality is seldom that clean cut. We do not that the luxury of “out of town and in town preview performances”, upon which the reviewers refrain to comment. This is the realm of the New York theater scene, not amateur companies in the cultural backwaters of the land. When reviewers come to the opening night of a show there it has had many “performances” before a live audience prior to that one.

This is, however, no excuse. Every time an actor walks on stage it is his or her duty to do his utmost to entertain the audience. To use all of the talent and expertise he or she has to create the magic illusion that is live theater. Most times it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

I would have been glad had Mr. Munro been busy reviewing another play Thursday night and came on Friday. It would not have excused my drying up that night or made the performance any better for those that suffered though it because of it. But what he would have written might better have reflected the entire product. The snapshot that he made of that night was painfully honest. The consequence of my lapse, is that some individuals may be put off from seeing the production because of it.

Some opening nights are wonderful, some are awful. Live theater doesn’t have the options that are available to film. Like a sports team, we will win or lose each time. And like an individual athlete sometime we have a really bad day. Hopefully the fans will come to see the next game even if the quarterback fumbled the ball.

Bruce Robinson says:

Good on you, Richard, for your graceful reply.

James Sherrill says:

Mr. Adamson:

I do not mean to lay everything on your shoulders – every actor has a bad night. I applaud your responsibility and professionalism.

pk says:

Having been to many opening-nights know the travails that are a part of the run…..it is not my favorite night to attend, for some of the issues stated above…..

Richard, you are a mature, and talented performer also one who is truthful and self-aware, gracious, and wise, qualities that will serve you well as an actor. Am sure you will find much success as this is all part of learning the craft…

Heather Parish says:

First, this review asserts that there were more problems with the show than just line issues — including issues with directorial focus, acting approach, and text work. That’s more than “nibbling at slices”. If true, these are not things that generally change when the show “gels”. They are pretty much the result of the focus of the work during the weeks of rehearsal. So lets not put this review entirely on the shoulders of one man having a bad night. The reviewer certainly didn’t put it all there.

Theatre is ephemeral, yes. But for the most part, a solid, well-constructed show will remain disciplined and consistent in all of its major elements from opening to closing. We put our art out into the world based upon how well it is prepared, but we cannot control how people (including the critic) respond to it. Nor should we. That is also part of the ephemeral nature of theatre.

Oh, and on a practical level, the review is the price we pay for all of that great free coverage we get before opening. We always have the option to forego those color photos in Seven (or on the front page of the Bee) in exchange for the critic shutting up altogether.

Jamie says:

Interesting to read how the actors are so much more gracious than the producer. Not surprising, but interesting.

I saw the production Saturday evening and while the lines were clearly much better, you could see the actors struggling. It is a very tricky play that isn’t done very often because it is pretty static and has many different worlds, tones and ideas. Donald’s criticism was kind. Keller had some ideas that didn’t work, and the cast seemed unprepared. It happens. I give Keller kudos for trying some new things without completely mangling the play as we saw earlier in their summer season.

This company continues to trudge forward with some hits and more misses, and Ms Parish is exactly right. If you can’t take the bad review, don’t invite the critics and don’t take the free press. You can’t have it both ways.

Julia Reimer says:

Identifying strengths and weaknesses, that’s what reviews do. Far as I can tell, I think that’s what Donald has done here! Thanks, Donald (from one who teaches this writing stuff.)

Glenn Coeler says:

I did not catch “The Tempest” this year but as far as I know Mr Munro tries to make it opening night so if you ain’t got your s@#t together your going to reap his opinion. I really believe Mr Munro loves theater at his core, and doesn’t intentionally look for crap but when you give him crap he gives it back. I’ve had great openings and then weak one or two shows during the run. Don’t blame the messenger, he has a job and thank god we have him. So, it’s history now..keep going and never look back. Break legs to all who venture out on the stage and who bravely entertain us!

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