SALT LAKE CITY — William Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s foremost playwright. For over 400 years his works have captivated audiences around the globe. And perhaps it is a recent phenomenon, but it appears locally that there is rarely a time when one of Shakespeare’s plays is not being produced by one company or another. It seems that Shakespeare is the hot ticket in Utah.
Pioneer Theatre Company gives us their contribution to this celebration of the Bard with their production of The Tempest. I must admit that I have a great love for this play. And I was fortunate enough to be in another production of this play earlier this year. So it was with great anticipation that I went to see what PTC would do with this work. I must say that I was blown away.
Shakespeare has been subjected to many interpretations and reimaginings for centuries. Some work and others don’t, but what director Charles Morey has fashioned for this production is, no pun intended, magical. An early music ensemble in the lobby sets the tone for the evening. A bare framework set greets you as you enter the theater. Then Prospero enters as the lights dim and casts the spell that brings the show to life. The backdrop comes in, the lights come up, and Ariel is called forth and mounts a bicycle which powers a windmill blade to begin the tempest. From that moment on, the story captivates.
The casting is inspired. Craig Wroe is a vibrant, powerful Prospero. He is captivating to watch and listen to, particularly in the second act when he has the change of heart and addresses the spirits. (“Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves…”) Emily Trask as Miranda is spellbinding. She captures the innocence of a girl who has been sheltered for years from the real world. She is especially wonderful in the scene where she and Ferdinand finally make their love known to each other. Andy Rindlisbach makes a very believable Ferdinand and holds his own against Prospero. Julia Motyka is ethereal as Ariel. She is at times bird-like and mechanical in her movements. There is a unique relationship between Ariel and Prospero that culminates in the moment that they actually physically touch.
John Plumpis as Trinculo and Jeff Brooks as Stephano are delightful. They make the humor of the scene shine and seem so effortless. They are a true joy to watch and I haven’t laughed that much in Shakespeare in a long time. Along with that Paul Kiernan as Caliban gives a fresh, light-hearted take on what is often a very dark, villainous character. His Caliban is a frustrated creature who can’t quite figure out why his attempts at magic fail so miserably. He is magical in his speech about the beauties of the island and the noises and twangling instruments. It is deeply moving. Sebastian and Antonio, played by Kurt Zischke and John Leonard Thompson, respectively, are wonderfully devious. When they plot the killing of Alonso (David McCann) their lust for power is palpable. And Noble Shropshire as Gonzalo is so endearing. Gonzalo is perhaps the most genuine character in the show, and Shropshire is amazing to watch in the scene where Prospero finally reveals himself to the nobles.
The set design by Gary M. English is masterful and creates a magnificent space for the action of the play. Costume design by Susan Branch Towne is artful. The old world feel of the nobles is contrasted with an almost steam punk twist with Prospero and especially Ariel. The lighting design of Mary Louise Geiger is absolutely stunning. There is one scene made more powerful when the play of light casts a huge shadow of Prospero on the backdrop with Ariel seeming even tinier in the background.
Through all of this, there is only one tiny complaint that I had and that was that some of the lyrics were difficult to understand. The beautiful voice of Motyka was at times lost in the lush music composed by Andrew Hopson. This is a minor complaint and did not detract from the show. Opening night there were some odd pauses in the action, and I was unable to tell if this was purposeful or a slight bobble in the flow of the show.
This show marks Morey’s last directorial take on Shakespeare as artistic director at PTC. He could not have done a better job. This is a sparkling, magnificent, and breathtaking Tempest. All the elements converge to make this a stunning show. You will not forgive yourself if you miss it. It is Shakespeare as it should be: captivating, inviting, and joyous.