20 April 2016

The Tempest, by William Shakespeare

First, I want to say that I am a bad reviewer of The Tempest because I have very definite ideas about how it should be performed, particularly how Caliban should be portrayed. Second, I want to say that I genuinely believe in the project of the Rustic Mechanicals, which is to bring Shakespeare’s works to West Virginia. Keeping those things in mind, I am going to try and keep my claws in as much as possible in this review, because while there were bright spots in the recent Rustic Mechanicals production of The Tempest, overall I was disappointed.

Beginning with the good, this was one of the few productions of the play I’ve seen where I actually liked Prospero (played by Jim Matthews). Generally I dislike the character but Matthews played the part well, especially in Prospero’s solo portions and interactions with Ariel (Sarah Young). The silent opening scene worked really well, bringing out some of the best elements of physical performance, as Matthews conjured the storm and sent Young out to sink the ship. The rhythmic and ritualistic movements evoked the swirling maelstrom of the tempest much more convincingly than the scene chewing of 1.1—the mariners and nobles of the ship itself. One of the things that worked particularly about Matthews’ performance was the dignity he brought to the character, and the almost patriarchal good humor. This balanced really well with Young’s dancer-like portrayal of Ariel, with the fluid movements around stage evoking a lightness that reflects Ariel’s airy quality.

But for the most part overacting was the order of the day. I know there’s a school of actor training based on the go-big-or-go-home approach, but seriously, this production needed to be pulled back. When the overacting interrupts any possible suspension of disbelief it compromises the enjoyment of the theatrical experience. The most grating performance was Gonzalo (Samantha Huffman), who felt the need to talk loudly in an odd, old man accent (I guess, though on its own it didn’t particularly sound old manish to me). The voluminous white beard and the character’s dialogue would have been sufficient to signal that this was an elderly councilor. Another really odd performance—though I’m not sure whether this was properly overacting or just an odd performance choice—was Antonio (Celi Oliveto). The performance was oddly sexual, as though Antonio was trying to seduce Sebastian (Michael Vozniak) into murdering Alonso and Gonzalo. It’s hard to describe, but the performance came across as a “half way through murder the king and chill…” in a way that seems uncharacteristic of Antonio. Perhaps this was another performance where the stage beard, dialogue, and male costuming should have done the work without an additional accent.

There were times when the overacting either worked (or could have worked in a different production). In particular Stephano (Justin Grow) and Trinculo (Steve McElroy) were able to effectively overact because their characters are clowns, so going to the end of those performances work. Grow in particular—who, along with Matthews and Young, gave one of the best performances of the night—was able to play the excess of the clown without feeling like he had lost control of the overacting; the overacting felt purposeful and effective.

In a different show—one less run through with overacting—Miranda’s (Madison Whiting) vivacious bubbliness could have been an interesting interpretation of the character. Whiting spent most of the production with her eyes wide open, and moved with a ton of energy. In a more balanced overall production, this energetic performance would have been an interesting interpretation of Miranda, conveying her as the naïve, devoted daughter, who follows her father unquestioningly—there was no potentially rebellious edge to this Miranda, as many contemporary performers play her. But in the sea of overacting, Whiting’s performance blended into the general overdrawn quality of the production as a whole.

On the tech front, the performance was similarly divided. The musical selections were really lovely choices, matched extremely well to the actions going on on stage. During the silent opening scene, for instance, the swelling romantic music echoed Prospero’s conjuring of the storm with its rising winds and increasingly choppy waves. However, one of the biggest failures of the production was the lighting. The stage space of the Mon Arts Center, where I saw the play, is very wide but not very deep, so most of the dynamic action of the show ran stage left to right, with little up and down stage movement. This in itself isn’t a problem. But the lighting was all directed toward center stage, and the only light that filtered to the sides of the stage was what travelled all the way across the stage, dimming as it went. A good number of speeches were performed in the near darkness at the sides of the stage, which made it hard to see the characters (actors standing behind the pillars holding up the ceiling didn’t improve matters). Angling a few lights toward the sides of the stage could easily have solved this problem.

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