Delightful TEMPEST at Act II in Ambler

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

During its twelve years, Act II has steadily established itself as a solid producer of small scale musicals and plays. So it piqued my interest when I heard they would be mounting their first production of a Shakespeare play—and THE TEMPEST no less. How would their lovely, intimate playing space [with a depth of only 18 feet and a height of just a hair over 9 feet] accommodate 11 characters and a shipwreck? Beautifully, as it turns out. Associate Artistic Director Harriet Power spent the summer adapting the script so it could be performed by 7 actors, and Prospero’s magic could not have done a better job. Watching the 4 actors who do double duty in this inventive version is utterly fascinating and entertaining.

Sarah Doherty as Ariel and Dan Kern as Prospero in a scene from Act II Playhouse's production of William Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST. (Photo by Bill D'Agostino, Act II Playhouse.)

THE TEMPEST is acknowledged by most scholars as the bard’s last play, written in 1610—11. It is different from the majority of Shakespeare’s works for two reasons: the story is driven by Prospero’s magic (although the bard’s usual themes of betrayal and manipulation are present), and it’s one of only two in the canon that follow the classical Greek “Unities” for drama: time, place and action. The plot consists of one action (Prospero enacting revenge on his enemies), in one place (the island, which is believed to be in the Bermudas) over the course of real time (in this instance between the hours of 2 and 6 PM). It is also interesting to note that it may be the only Shakespeare play that did not draw inspiration from the classics; in fact, it most likely was inspired by tales of real shipwrecks taking place in “the New World.”

The story deals with the aforementioned Prospero, whose brother Antonio (with the help of Alonso, the King of Naples) deposed him of his Dukedom and placed him and his 3-year-old daughter Miranda in a rickety boat—assuming they would die at sea. Nice guy. However, Prospero and Miranda end up on an island, wherein they encounter the sprite Ariel (who’d been imprisoned in a tree by the Algerian witch Sycorax) and the bestial Caliban (half-monster son of Sycorax). THE TEMPEST’s action starts twelve years after father and daughter were stranded. Prospero possesses magical powers due to his great learning and he has gained control over the two—but he continually promises Ariel freedom.

Sensing his enemies are near, Prospero conjures up the titular tempest and causes his enemies to be shipwrecked on his island. Using spells, he contrives to separate the survivors of the wreck into several groups. King Alonso and Ferdinand are placed on different parts of the island and believe one another to be dead. Three plots then alternate through the play, all of which Prospero is controlling—with the ultimate goal of getting his enemies in front of him. In the final scene, “all’s well that ends well.” The king’s ship is miraculously restored and all, except Ariel and Caliban, will sail back to Naples—where Ferdinand and Miranda will be married. Prospero renounces his magic by destroying his staff and “drowning” his books; in his epilogue, shorn of his magic powers, he invites the audience to set him free from the island with their applause.

As Prospero, Dan Kern is a compelling presence—one believes he has magical powers. He commands the stage throughout the piece—and also brings a wonderful element of fatherly devotion to the role. Kern, on staff at Temple University, gives us a very erudite and measured performance. Abetting him in his schemes, as the sprite Ariel, is Sarah Doherty. Her lovely voice and beautiful physicality really brought an “airy spirit” to the piece, yet she is equally effective in Ariel’s more ferocious moments as well. Nicole Erb plays Miranda with genuine innocence and youthful glee. She conveys true trust and daughterly devotion beautifully. Her wonder at seeing another human being other than her father is a treat to watch.

The remaining cast members are magnificent in their handling of the rapid change in gears required to perform double roles. Tom Byrn essays both the monstrous Caliban and the dignified and wise Gonzalo. His entrance as Caliban is creepy/funny. He mines every bit of evil and comedy out of the role possible, without devolving into caricature. As Gonzalo, he is the picture of calm wisdom and a gentle soul—the transformation is mind-boggling. Griffin Stanton-Ameisen portrays both the earnest young Prince Ferdinand and the plotting brother of the king, Sebastian. Morphing back and forth between the two, he deftly captures the mooniness of a young man in love and the raw ambition of a second son who feels he deserves the power. Rob Kahn tackles Alonso the King of Naples and the drunken Trinculo with great gusto; flipping back and forth between hardened, yet regal, royal and the pixilated servant with aplomb. Finally, there is David Ingram as Prospero’s evil brother Antonio and the besotted servant Stephano. Ingram has always been one of my favorites in the Philly theatre community and he doesn’t disappoint here. As always, he makes unique choices that are a delight to those watching. Ms. Power is to be heartily applauded for her smart and incisive direction of this entertaining production. She clearly allowed her actors the freedom to create, while adding subtle directorial touches when needed.

The design work is an integral part of the piece as well. All of these elements support the play beautifully and do much to making it the magical evening of theatre it is. Set designer Dirk Durossette was charged with the task of creating Prospero’s island (and the shipwreck of the first scene) on the tiny—and wingless—stage at Act II. He more than met the challenge, creating a visually intriguing set that uses every available inch. One is given elements of a ship along with the open feeling of an island, with a hint that this may be a vision in Prospero’s head. Lighting designer James Leitner and sound designer/composer John Stovicek have both created beautiful work that solidly help create the proper mood of the play. Adding to this is the video—yes video—work of Bill D’Agostino and Charlotte Cloe Fox Wind’s inventive costume designs. Avista Custom Theatrical puts the cherry on top, so to speak, with some clever creations for props.

Act II is to be applauded for this latest leap of artistic faith. Their first foray into the world of The Bard is a delight—and very accessible to any who may not be well-versed in Shakespeare. I encourage everyone to make the trip to Ambler to catch this production of THE TEMPEST—it’s well worth the schlep.

by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Harriet Power
November 16 – December 12, 2010
Act II Playhouse
 56 E. Butler Avenue           
Ambler, PA 19002           
(215) 654-0200

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