Lucia Mauro's
about Lucia | article / review archives | books | travel essays | new commentary | photos | live chat | interviews
Theater Review:

European Repertory Company’s "THE TEMPEST" at The Viaduct


Perhaps as it celebrates its tenth anniversary, European Repertory Company wishes to explore its elemental roots and its desire to strip theater down to an essential core of humanity. That may be the reason co-artistic director Dale Goulding chose William Shakespeare’s most poetic and personal play, "The Tempest," to open ERC’s season. But Goulding’s misguided and rudderless production -- described in the director’s notes as exploring "the human condition" – shaves the Bard’s late romance down to nothing.

Those who have neither read nor seen "The Tempest" – one of Shakespeare’s more emotionally accessible plays – will feel as if they’ve been placed under a spell of incomprehension. The production, in its efforts to deny a concept and eliminate most of the work’s poetic grace, renders this sweeping tale of tempered ambition and a wizened passing of the torch meaningless.

In fact, audiences familiar with the play’s sensuous magic grounded in a blistering sense of reality, might find themselves scratching their heads and wondering how such a seamless work of literature could turn so erratic and incomplete in ERC’s hands. This notion is even more shocking when one considers that ERC has long been respected for its ability to sensitively and inventively tap into the core of the human spirit.

"The Tempest" often has been regarded by scholars as Shakespeare’s farewell. The playwright may have had himself in mind when he crafted Prospero, the reluctant Duke of Milan who, following a shipwreck, rules with "white magic" over a mysterious island. Besides his beautiful young daughter Miranda (symbolizing the promise of a new world), Prospero is joined by the loyal chameleon-like sprite Ariel and the savage Caliban (who plots with futile bravado to kill his master and take Miranda by force).

When Prospero’s brother, Antonio – who has usurped the title of Duke of Milan – gets swept onto the island with his councilors and shipmates, the benevolent magician takes them through a supernatural test of deceptions until they repent and fully understand the consequences of their actions. The two linked stories of this triangular plot line are Miranda’s romance with the King of Naples’ son, Ferdinand, and Ferdinand’s own character-building trials instituted by Prospero; and the fools Trinculo and Stephano, who get lured into Caliban’s wrongheaded scheme to assassinate Prospero.

"The Tempest," whose title refers to the changing climate (both physical and psychological) and to time, extends beyond the reality versus illusion structure to one that reverses the very essence of what is genuine and what is conjured in one’s mind for personal gain. It’s also a lyrical meditation on the passing of time and its cycles – planting, harvesting, birth, death, etc. – and implies that life may be a dream from which we awake when we die. Furthermore, it comments on the dramatic art form and its capacity to unveil truths in a contrived environment.

But these multilayered ideas get lost in Goulding’s flippant and plodding production, which can best be described as a kinky fashion show for the simultaneously omni-sexual and asexual Ariel rather than a fully realized examination of the powerful alchemistic pull of the elements.

The designers, no doubt mirroring the Mozart-style mechanical opera sets of the 18th century, do not carry their pared-down design motif full circle. A pond filled with real water bordering the spacious central stage of The Viaduct also comes across as mere decoration – stopping short of poignant symbolic value.

And Goulding fails to bring out any provocative textures in his talented cast. Gary Houston’s Prospero is too world weary and vocally monotonous to engender any urgency to his plight, while Heather Prete’s Miranda stays at one shallow, shrill level. Kirk Anderson’s Caliban is reduced to a bungling clown. Only Aaron Cedolia’s Ferdinand and Fred Wellisch as gentle advisor Gonzalo burrow deep inside their characters’ multitiered dilemmas.

But the most disturbing aspect of ERC’s "Tempest" is the campy yet ominous portrayal of Ariel by Rick Frederick, who is forced to parade around the stage naked or draped in pearls, faux fur, angel wings and spiky S&M gear – not to mention his killer high heels and equally razor-angled blonde hair and the sort of white contact lenses actors wear in tacky devil movies. We cease to care about the story and wait in anticipation for Ariel’s next outrageous outfit.

"Tempest" audiences will feel like they’ve been deposited on a desert island – lost in a haze of psychological frustration, disorientation and emptiness that grows even more confounding with each interminable passage of soul-stripping time.•

European Repertory Company’s production of "The Tempest" runs through December 2 at The Viaduct, 3111 N. Western Ave. Tickets: $15-$22. Call 773-248-0577.

email the Writer