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Review: ‘The Tempest’ at the Dallas Theater Center

by Jerome Weeks 19 Sep 2011 9:13 PM

The DTC opens its season with a stripped-down but fancied up Tempest. It’s director Kevin Moriarty’s best Bard to date . It plays like a heartfelt fairy tale but that’s because of a couple of moving performances.


Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as Ariel, Cliff Miller as Trinculo, Joe Nemmers as Caliban and Lee Trull as Stephano in The Tempest

The Dallas Theater Center has opened its previous two seasons with a play by William Shakespeare. This time, it’s The Tempest, and in his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says it’s artistic director Kevin Moriarty’s best so far.

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Regrettably, this Tempest is still in the mode of Kevin Moriarty’s easy-access, short-attention-span Shakespeare. It’s an approach — seen previously in Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry IV — that has not bowled me over.  As with the dance-party Midsummer two years ago, this approach can certainly provide an invigorating and popular introduction to a play. And there’s often a case to be made for simplifying and re-wording Shakespeare’s works. When it’s done on this scale and this repeatedly, though, it seems like a lack of faith in the plays or in the actors. It’s as if, for Moriarty, even the great ones can’t succeed without a lot of help, some serious re-jiggering.

With The Tempest, Moriarty has cut down Shakespeare’s late comedy to an hour and 45 minutes — without intermission. He’s stripped out much of the historical context and classical references, dropped the masque (which many directors do) and modernized the language throughout.

Yet this production is also retro, even traditionalist. In addition to the cuts just mentioned, the DTC Tempest forgoes any of the colonialist overlay that’s become conventional in recent years. In the mid-’60s, Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary advanced the idea that Prospero is a Western master of science and power, while Caliban is the Third-World native he’s oppressed. (Coincidentally, Adrian Hall’s production at the Theater Center — the last Tempest done by the company — brought this interpretation to Dallas in 1987. Most elaborately perhaps, director George C. Wolfe brought it to Broadway in 1995 in a Jamaican-island version featuring Patrick Stewart as Prospero).

All that’s gone. What Moriarty has given us, instead, is The Tempest as pure fairy tale, the Brothers Grimm gone to Bermuda. Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, was banished to an island where he’s raised his daughter Miranda. For twelve years, he’s used magic and the island’s otherworldly creatures to prepare his revenge against his usurping brother, Antonio.

It’s a fairy tale — with a contemporary gloss. Overall, Moriarty’s simplifications work surprisingly well. But he can’t help inserting trendy gimmicks on occasion: the drunken clowns Stefano and Trinculo sport hoodies and Juicy Couture, while the play itself opens with an airplane crash instead of a shipwreck (it’s a lame affair: onboard, there’s not much in the way of smoke, warning lights or even passenger panic).

But after the plane crash, our castaways find themselves on set designer Beowulf Borrit’s gorgeous, silvery dreamscape. It recalls Arthur Rackham’s Victorian children’s book illustrations or the fantasy worlds of album-cover artist Roger Dean. This is a desert island where it snows, an island where even Caliban, the island’s monster, is amazed by the music he hears and the dreams they cause.

Nemmers: “The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.”

Chamblee Ferguson as Prospero, Abbey Siegworth as Miranda, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as Ariel, Steven Walters as Ferdinand in The Tempest

 This fairy tale succeeds not because of Borrit’s beautiful set or the music (provided by Broken Chord) or even the special effects (some of which, like the plane crash, are more ‘children’s story-time’ than truly impressive). It’s plain Moriarty wants to remove a lot of the antiquated language to get to these characters’ human essence, and several performers succeed. They’re the ones who make this a heartfelt Tempest as well as a lovely one.

Longtime Dallas actor Joe Nemmers makes Caliban a tender monster, not the usual “thing most brutish.” To be sure, Nemmers snarls and threatens and contorts his muscular body into an Igor-like crouch (one half-expects him to lisp, “Master!“). But his Caliban is more akin to a brooding teenager who hates to obey, hates his chores, yet secretly aches for adult guidance and respect. There’s a wounded soul in this beast. In fact, at the end, when Prospero acknowledges “this thing of darkness” as his own, the reconciliation is more touching than the entire Miranda-Ferdinand courtship, which in the hands of Abbey Siegworth and Steven Walters feels formulaic.

The island’s other magical servant-creature, Ariel, is given a more human interpretation as well by Hunter Ryan Herdlicka. He’s not as extraterrestrial as some Ariels, but he ends up relatively unsurprising as a kind of sweet, choirboy Puck. Herdlicka is a handsome, agile presence with a clear, pure voice but he’s also somewhat bland in the role. He’s the likable puppy to Nemmers’ attack dog.

It’s Chamblee Ferguson’s Prospero that ultimately makes this Tempest beat with a big heart. Ferguson doesn’t have a duke’s commanding presence, the kind that classic tragedians like Patrick Stewart or Christopher Plummer brought to the role with ease. At first, Ferguson seems to be trying to make up for that lack by bellowing too much. But in his last great speeches, he truly comes into his own, bringing an emotional openness not often seen in the grizzled old wizard. For Prospero’s powerful ‘farewell to magic’ speech, lighting designer Clifton Taylor has pulled out a few effects that complement the verbal fireworks.

Chamblee Ferguson as the wizard Prospero. All photos: Karen Almond

It’s among those speeches that Ferguson finds The Tempest‘s emotional core — in a few lines that are often overlooked: Prospero’s rejection of revenge. Too many actors make Prospero’s choice seem pre-ordained. We know all along the old sorcerer is too nice a fellow to do any serious damage. In a smart move — Ferguson’s or Moriarty’s — this Prospero diligently sharpens the knife he intends to use on the villainous Antonio (the smoothly sly J. Brent Alford). Ariel brings Prospero the news that all is ready for his revenge. But he adds, almost as an afterthought, if his master saw how wretched his brother and his entourage are now, Prospero might feel differently.

Ferguson: “Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance …
Go release them, Ariel:
My charms I’ll break.”

Here, and during the Epilogue — a speech that’s often delivered as a coy, stagey afterthought but which Ferguson makes into an eloquent plea for redemption and healing — Moriarty allows the moment (for once, at last) to resonate on its own. There are no special effects, no pop music, no attempts to heighten or underscore or wring out more pathos.

It’s just Ferguson’s acting and Shakespeare’s language. And it’s wondrous.

All photos by Karen Almond, except the last one, by Beowulf Boritt


A side note on the costuming: The clothing in The Tempest presents one of those logical paradoxes when theatergoers naturally expect one thing yet the script indicates the opposite.

We often see Prospero and Miranda wearing Robinson Crusoe-like rags. It makes sense because they’ve survived for some 12 years on a desert island. They sport patched, sun-bleached outfits, Miranda especially because she was only 2 when they arrived here. She’s had to wear her father’s re-worked hand-me-downs. It’s not likely that the “rotten carcass of a boat” they sailed here contained clothing for a teenage girl when she was only an infant.

But in Act IV, scene 1, Prospero distracts the plotting clowns, Trinculo and Stefano, with a whole wardrobe of fancy duds (the Juicy Couture mentioned above). So why would Prospero and Miranda suffer for years wearing rags?

Many costumers split the difference. That is, much of Miranda and Prospero’s clothing looks beachcomber-y, with the occasional regal item or fancy heirloom thrown in. Certainly, Beowful Boritt’s costumes feature some incongruities: For Prospero’s magic cloak, Chamblee Ferguson wears a frayed trenchcoat, while Abbey Siegworth’s jeans are fashionably (that is, carefully) tattered. Yet all her cotton blouses are absolutely white, clean and crisp.

So that’s why Caliban is so grumpy. The poor wretch has been doing all her ironing.