At the Lantern Theater Company, one of the benefits of a Shakespeare production is the sheer wealth of knowledge offered along with the performance. Informative signs in the lobby along with essays and summaries in the program discuss Shakespeare’s writing of the play as well as the historical and social background of the setting – typically geared to give the audience a deeper understanding of the Lantern’s current production. For The Tempest, however, though the same amount of information is present (including, but not limited to, a discussion of contemporary attitudes to magic, the Age of Exploration, and similarities to King Lear) it is not as strictly tied to the Lantern’s interpretation. Instead, it appears to be there solely for the sake of learning – a lovely (and informative) introduction to the motivations of Prospero in a production of The Tempest whose focus is the play itself.
The setting is simply “on and around an enchanted island” with no date or location, though the costume design eventually seems to agree on 19th or early 20th-century Europe (for the human characters, at least). Designer Natalia de la Torre takes advantage of the line “on their sustaining garments not a blemish” to showcase the still-bright colors and sparkly trimmings of the fashionable inhabitants of Milan and Naples. While one might be tempted to think that perhaps the King’s gold-trimmed pink silk capelet and matching jacket is strictly finery from his daughter’s wedding, even Prospero sports a fine teal waistcoat throughout and signals his return to civilization by trading his “magic garment” (an intriguing – though of course well-cut – coat made of canvas and covered with presumably mystic lines of writing and arcane diagrams) for his own set of tails complete with sequined embroidery. (Given that everyone else is in such good repair, this makes the subtle joke that a bedraggled Stephano, with his ragged pants and suit jacket, must have somehow managed to mangle his outfit himself.) Miranda is at something of a disadvantage, having to make do with a simple wrap dress repurposed from sailcloth, but even this is decorated with a floral design that matches her blue espadrille sandals and accessorized with a shell comb in her neat hair. In contrast, it is not even clear which parts of Ariel and Caliban are body ornamentation and which parts are their actual bodies. Ariel is completely covered with something that looks like fraying grey fabric (or bark), with ragged wing-like gauze; Caliban is definitely wearing a crude leather skirt, but the rings of long fur around his neck, arms, and knees may or may not be removable.
Scenic designer Lance Kniskern takes inspiration from the materials of a shipwreck to create a dynamic multi-level stage, rising in a wedge to the back corner of the theater. Crooked sun-bleached timbers are stretched with sailcloth and ropes, while weeds and vines poke up through them at will. The highest point puts the focus on Prospero’s most prized possessions: homemade shelves and an actual stand for his books of magic. More sailcloth drops from the ceiling at Prospero’s command to screen the back of the stage in a rectangular prism, upon which the projected silhouettes of Ariel and other spirits act out his magical commands.
Peter DeLaurier makes for an interesting Prospero simply by portraying a genuinely nice older gentleman. He’s a kindly father to Miranda (Ruby Wolf), a dynamic that carries over into his interactions with Bi Jean Ngo’s Ariel and even Caliban (J Hernandez) once they reconcile. DeLaurier gives him an adorable glee at his daughter’s romance and a relieved happiness when Antonio and Caliban accept his forgiveness. This Prospero is no magical mastermind, but is clearly trying to use magic to find a peaceful solution to the political situation. At the same time, DeLaurier shows the cost of giving up those powers, growing weaker as Prospero gives Ariel and Caliban their freedom and potentially some of his own magic, with the breaking of his staff rendering him nearly unable to walk – a situation DeLaurier portrays Prospero as happy to accept if the audience’s applause gets him back to his home.
Bi Jean Ngo’s Ariel is appropriately flighty for a spirit of air, though along with the enthusiasm of a small puppy she also has the patience of the rocks she sometimes imitates. Ngo is excellent at subtly portraying Ariel as a part of nature, insinuating herself into scenes where she has been tasked to spy upon the inhabitants and camouflaging herself as part of the island – never has watching someone imitate a frog been so riveting. Ngo also has a wonderful singing voice and provides most of the music in the show; combined with demonstrating Ariel’s genuine affection for Prospero (expressed by air-headbutts, sort of their own personal handshake), she offers a charming well-rounded performance. One could say the same of the rest of the actors, as well – the cast is very strong, and excellent at conveying long-standing relationships with one another (positive or negative). Frank X (Stephano), J Hernandez (Caliban), and Dave Johnson (Trinculo) carry most of the comedy like the shipwrecked Three Stooges, but the flashes of humor from Ruby Wolf’s Miranda and Chris Anthony’s Ferdinand show that even the more serious storylines need not be serious all the time.
Director Charles McMahon has clearly focused on the craftsmanship of the play. The pacing is oddly deliberate for such a pleasant and relatively light-hearted show, but at least there is more than enough to look at. The pleasingly elaborate set and costumes and the engaging performances all have a strong textual basis, and even the special effects are mostly modern editions of those suggested in Shakespeare’s stage directions. The constant soundtrack of waves, animals, and who knows what else playing in the background is both a subtle place cue and a sufficiently advanced technological version of the island’s noises, sounds, and sweet airs (though one does occasionally wish for some musical accompaniment for Ariel slightly more glorious than the vibraphone). The silhouettes cast upon the sailcloth screen are an effective sort of lo-fi magic, particularly when the angle of the projector gives the illusions that the matching shadows are not moving in sync with each other.
The result is a colorful and well-executed production. Both a solid introduction for newcomers and a creative yet classic take for long-time fans, all are welcomed to revel in the Lantern Theater Company’s wealth of knowledge and talent on full display.