Plein-air “Tempest” not to be missed



Reviewed by Ellen Booraem

When the spirit Ariel (played by Thea Brooks) cawed like a seagull, an actual seagull responded during Opera House Arts production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” being staged outdoors at Ames Farm in Stonington.
JULIA SEARS PHOTO

STONINGTON — “The Tempest,” this year’s Shakespeare in Stonington production by Opera House Arts, is staged entirely outdoors — a foolhardy effort, you’d think, risking sun, storm and insects.

But the shore of Deer Island Thorofare, it turns out, is exactly where William Shakespeare’s last solo play was made to be staged. Magic everywhere.

At Ames Farm through July 15, this “Tempest” is an immersive experience for the audience, who follow a path to five different settings. At each site, actors enter from shore, woods or field, excusing themselves as they brush through the audience.

A dock stands in for a storm-tossed vessel. Last weekend, when the spirit Ariel cawed like a seagull, an actual seagull responded. A songbird accompanied the sorcerer Prospero’s farewell to his craft.

“The Tempest” is said to be the last play Shakespeare wrote alone, five years before his death. For four centuries, audiences have assumed that Prospero’s beautifully written pledge to abjure “this rough magic” was Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater. This play is the work of a wily old hand who knew how to entertain but who also had something to say.

It starts with vengeance but ends in love and forgiveness. Even Prospero learns something.

The story is simple. Deposed as Duke of Milan and marooned on a magical island for 12 years with his daughter, Miranda, Prospero calls up a storm that shipwrecks the brother and the rival king who did him in. The king’s son and Miranda fall in love. Prodded by spirits in Prospero’s control, the brother and the king see the error of their ways.

Everybody comes out OK, except possibly a trio of drunken low-life characters, among Shakespeare’s most entertaining: a butler with royal ambitions, his jester sidekick and an enslaved monster. Plotting to kill Prospero, they end up hung over and incriminated.

Following Shakespeare in Stonington tradition, there is a touch of gender-swapping. OHA veteran Kathleen Turco-Lyon plays Prospero as an emotionally vulnerable man, saddened by a brother’s betrayal and securing his daughter’s future by losing her. The “airy spirit” Ariel, his only other close companion, is fond of him but campaigning to be released from his service. Thea Brooks plays the spirit as bird-like, with a gull’s shriek and determination to fly free.

The play keeps up a lively pace, thanks to Peter Richards’ directing and judicious text-cutting. The action takes less than two hours.

Wisely, Richards left in most of the comic relief, featuring the butler Stephano (Arisael Rivera), the jester Trinculo (Bari Robinson) and the monster Caliban (Ryan Knowles). The three actors are a seamless, slapstick team, capering about on the rocks plotting murder. Robinson also plays Prospero’s evil brother Antonio, and Rivera the king’s equally evil brother, but they have more scope as drunken conspirators.

As Caliban, Knowles uses his voice as a weapon—no need for a monster mask or misshapen form. It’s all in the voice. He gets to deliver the other Shakespeare in Stonington hallmark — the text change with local flavor. (It’s late in the show. It’s a clam reference.)

Also excellent are Taylor Karin and David Keohane as the sweetly ensorcelled young lovers, Torsten Hillhouse as the guilt-ridden King of Naples and Marvin Merritt IV as boatswain and courtier.

Music plays a big role on a magical island — “Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears,” Caliban warns his two new pals — and Shakespeare knew his audience loved the occasional musical number. Brooks, Knowles, Rivera and Karin have amazing voices, and Amy Kyzer is gorgeous as a singing goddess celebrating Miranda’s engagement to the prince.

Costume designer Jennifer Paar had a field day costuming the spirits. Ariel’s feathered body suit establishes her as a bird-spirit and also lets her move like one. Minor spirits appear as walking thickets or bird nests, reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. Caliban’s costume is simple and evocative — the poor monster’s got barnacles.

Technically, the production is a winner, the one glitch being when Ariel turns into a harpy to torment Antonio and the king. The harpy’s giant wings are marvelous, but her pre-recorded speech is hard to understand. Fortunately, the cast’s reactions make it clear that their guilt has come home to roost.

“The Tempest” is at Ames Farm. July 5-8 and 11-15, 5:30 p.m. Wear shoes that can traverse a mown path, and bring a jacket and bug spray. Two tiers of open-seating tickets are $40 and $25. Order tickets at www.operahousearts.org or by calling 367-2788.