THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare (Driftwood Theatre Group). Through Sunday (July 27) at 7:30 pm, at Withrow Park (south of Danforth, east of Logan), and then touring Ontario through August 17. Pwyc ($20 suggested). Schedule and venues at driftwoodtheatre.com. See listing. Rating: NNN
A tale of magic, love and forgiveness, The Tempest is a blend of moving verse, philosophy and comic antics.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Driftwood Theatre captures the piece's charm in its current outdoor touring production, with some clever staging and, most importantly, a cast that makes the text clear even for those who aren't regular theatregoers.
Prospero (Richard Alan Campbell), duke of Milan, has been thrown out of his kingdom by his villainous brother, Antonio (Christopher Darroch), with the help of Alonso (Steven Burley), king of Naples. A magician, Prospero has found a home on a desolate island with his young daughter, Miranda (Miriam Fernandes); the island's residents also include the spirit Ariel (Madeleine Donohue) and the beast-like Caliban (Peter van Gestel).
When the rulers of Milan and Naples travel near Prospero's island, he causes a storm to bring them all - including Alonso's son, Ferdinand (Kaleb Alexander), Alonso's sibling, Sebastian (Farah Merani) and Prospero's loyal old friend, Gonzalo (Christina James) - ashore. Vengeance is the magician's initial plan, but things turn out differently.
Director and scenic designer D. Jeremy Smith gives the production a 1920s feel, with what was a shipwreck in the original becoming an airplane brought down by Prospero's art. The pilot is Stephano (van Gestel), a clownish figure who later becomes part of a comic plot to overthrow Prospero, one that involves Caliban and another servant, Trinculo (Donohue).
The period feel of old-time theatre continues with touches of vaudeville, sideshow frolics and a circus ringmaster who appears near the end.
Smith always gets good performances from his cast, making sure that they understand the language and can communicate it to viewers not used to listening to iambic pentameter. He presents Prospero's back story as action around the sides of the stage, letting the audience see as well as hear what the magician tells his daughter about their history.
Campbell's Prospero is a sometimes low-key figure, even his anger held in check, but he's clearly organizing his daughter's future: he's brought Ferdinand to the island for a purpose. Especially moving is the actor's underlining Prospero's awareness near the play's end of his human frailty and the need to move on. Still, there's a hint that this magician would rather not forswear his supernatural powers.
Alexander and Fernandes make charming young lovers, besotted and engagingly foolish with each other from the start. Gordon's Gonzalo, full of vigour and good spirits, is a stalwart figure who turns the character's one long, potentially tedious speech into an entertaining moment.
Gonzalo's not the only male character played by a woman. Giving Sebastian to Merani means the conniving between her and Darroch has an extra frisson. When Antonio tempts Sebastian to kill her brother and take the throne of Naples, the scene begins as a sexual seduction before turning political; the actors have the chemistry to make both parts work. By the end, they become a kind of lesser Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth.
The two supernatural figures, Ariel and Caliban, are a combination of puppet and human in a clever design by head of props Lokki Ma. Ariel, voiced by Donohue, is an appropriately sprightly figure floating on a pole, a combination of red feathers and airy gold drapery. A figure of rocks and grey colours, Caliban, voiced by van Gestel, is more complex: at first he's a two-person puppet worked by van Gestel and Darroch, and as the action continues he changes size in a surprising fashion.
The only trouble for some viewers is knowing when van Gestel is playing Caliban and when he's Stephano, for the characters often appear in the same scene. Different accents help, as does van Gestel's ability to give Caliban moments of poetry.
Driftwood shows always make good use of a cappella music sung by the cast, so it's no surprise that The Tempest, which is full of songs, continues the tradition under composer/ musical director Tom Lillington.