Among the many delicious touches that make The Tempest one of the best shows of the summer is a Bard on the Beach in-joke. First-time director Meg Roe, showing astonishing artistic maturity with this production, has done some gender-bending casting, turning low-comic drunks Trinculo and Stephano into Trincula and Stephana. In the play “savage” native islander Caliban offers them his servitude in the hopes that they’ll help him kill his master, Prospero. Roe has Caliban kiss and even lick Stephana’s feet in a couple of hilarious scenes of self-degradation. The value-added irony: Stephana is played—with great comic panache—by Colleen Wheeler, Caliban (cast against type as the “deformed monster”) by Bob Frazer. Last summer, Bard’s smash hit Taming of the Shrew featured Wheeler’s Kate forced to degrade herself to husband Frazer’s Petruchio. What a delightful turn of the wheel.
From top to bottom this is another nearly perfectly cast production, one of Bard’s great strengths this summer. Allan Morgan does some of his best work ever as Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan who has turned himself into a magician and made the island his home, in part by making its inhabitants Caliban and Ariel (a delightfully mercurial Jennifer Lines) his slaves. Prospero’s colonial harshness towards them is nicely balanced by his affection for his daughter Miranda (an adorably naïve Julie McIsaac), and Morgan captures the full range of Prospero’s spectrum. His freeing and blessing of Caliban at the end is genuinely moving.
The broad comedy works wonderfully, due mainly to Wheeler’s outsized, richly textured performance. She groans her little groans of drunken pleasure like a jazz riff through her scenes with Frazer, who is once again eminently watchable. Up-and-coming comic star Naomi Wright holds her own nicely as Trincula.
The more serious subplot involving the other shipwrecked sailors is less interesting, and Roe has trimmed it significantly. John Murphy as Prospero’s usurping brother, the villainous Antonio, and Russell Roberts as Prospero’s good and loyal old friend Gonzalo do standout work.
Roe’s handiwork is most in evidence in the production’s non-verbal elements. Charles Christian Gallant, Hamza Adam and Omari Newton play spirits of the island who tear through a number of scenes with exciting gymnastic physicality. And on the two occasions when Prospero directs his island’s spirits in elaborate dumb-shows Roe creates glorious spectacles, though they last only a minute or two. Christine Reimer’s costumes are sensational, and the three spirit-brides in the wedding ceremony are an especially cool touch.
“The isle is full of noises,” says Caliban. Perhaps the jewel in the crown of this production is the onstage string trio (Mark Beaty on bass, Masae Day violin, Llowyn Ball violin and viola) that make those noises a gorgeous soundscape. Kudos to Alessandro Juliani for his sound design and original, classically-tinged compositions. Music has played a very significant role in all four Bard shows this summer, with only the Lear experiment falling flat.
So chalk up another winner, and another great summer, for Bard.