- The Tempest
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Director Annie Lareau's Tempestfor the Seattle Shakespeare Company benefitted from numerous excellent casting decisions. The most prominently billed of these—the casting of Mari Nelson as Prospero—felt like a familiar choice following a decade in which several female actors have taken on the role, but nevertheless offered an invigorating central performance. The roles of the principal nobles were all played by women, with solid performances by Betsy Schwartz as Antonio and Eleanor Moseley as Alonso. But the two standout casting choices were Allyson Lee Brown as Miranda and the quartet of Gloria Lee Alcalá, Sydney Maltese, Sidney Rakowiecki, and Malex Reed as Ariel.
Brown's performance was by turns charming, insolent, naive, generous, and cruel. Paired with Mari Nelson's wry and domineering Prospero, who was infectiously gleeful as a plot manipulator, Brown's Miranda displayed clear family resemblances. Brown played so well against Benjamin Neil McCormack's earnest portrayal of Ferdinand that I began to suspect that The Tempestis, indeed, a romantic comedy.
For all the strength of Nelson and Brown's commanding performances, however, it was the Ariel quartet and Malex Reed's musical composition and direction that most distinguished the production. Alcalá, Maltese, Rakowiecki, and Reed grounded the play in musicality and strangeness. Reed's original compositions gave most of the main characters a leitmotif and set the majority of Ariel's lines as four-part harmony. Like the rest of the cast, Ariel appeared in Edwardian-era clothing. Their costumes, musical numbers, and choreography were subtle homages to the music hall. Their four bodies on stage, sometimes clustered together and sometimes frenetically carrying out commands in different areas, made Ariel the most enchanting and unnerving presence of the performance. Reed's compositions for Prospero were similarly haunting, as Nelson chanted incantations that muted the gentler music of Ariel's song. The company has produced a Youtube video, "Song Sorcery," that gives Reed's composition work a deserved spotlight.
It is worth commenting on the generally high quality of the production. The Tempestincorporated technologically advanced sound design and projection effects that skewed toward cinematic without becoming distracting. The stage design was elegant and appropriate to the Edwardian period costumes worn. Julia Hayes Welch's set featured an oversized, distressed wooden frame canted at 45º and suggesting atmospheric decay on a titanic scale. Stage lighting was cleverly diegetic, taking the form of a dozen or more chandeliers that flashed and flickered during enchantment scenes. The projection effects during Prospero's masque, coupled [End Page 275]with the ministrations of the four Ariels, created persuasive pageantry. Several gauze scrims allowed Ariel and Prospero to observe and influence downstage action while silhouetted. Combined with the portrait frame that encompassed the entire stage area, these partially occluded backstage vantage points suggested constant surveillance and spectatorship from multiple angles. Only in the opening scene were the technical effects overwhelming—the haze and strobing effects, the piped-in thunder, and the actors pitching themselves across the stage while shouting rendered the first five minutes basically unintelligible. Small matter. It was clearly a shipwreck.
Because the four-bodied Ariel was such an excellent feature of the performance, I found myself wishing that this production had thought more critically about the bodies under Prospero's control. Rather than the usual, and unsettling, party of two bodies held in Prospero's thrall, Seattle Shakespeare's Tempestpresented five. This had the unintended effect of sometimes encircling Prospero entirely with bodies she commanded. For example, when Prospero narrated Ariel's and Caliban...