Ending on a high note

By Roberta Kent
Tidings reviewer
Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s departing artistic director, Libby Appel, has made no secret that this season she chose to direct Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as her parting gifts to the festival and to her audience. And lush, bountiful gifts they have been.

“The Tempest” is Shakespeare’s last play and many interpretations have seen it as the playwright’s commentary on his own art and career. Past productions of the play at OSF have focused on Prospero as a magician, conjuring his own personal world, on the nature of power and the price of vengeance or on the question of the things we truly control and the things that are beyond us.

Appel has chosen in this production to illuminate Prospero as an artist and creator in his ultimate acts — “letting go.” She has also chosen to examine those themes of enslavement and liberation: What does it do to master as well as to slave?

Shakespeare’s Prospero, duke of Milan (Derrick Lee Weeden), was overthrown by his brother Antonio (here Antonia, played regally by Greta Oglesby) and cast away with his young daughter Miranda (a luminous Nell Geisslinger) by Alonso, the King of Naples (Armando Duran) in return for Milan’s fiefdom. Prospero and Miranda are only saved by the generosity of the old courtier Gonzalo (James Edmondson), who provisions their boat and even includes Prospero’s treasured books.

Prospero landed on a remote island which he now dominates with magic. The place was formerly ruled by the exiled witch Sycorax, and when Prospero finds it, nearly abandoned. Sycorax’s surviving son, Caliban (Dan Donohue), a half-human creature, showed the magician and his daughter the tricks of survival. It was a happy partnership until Caliban tried to rape the young Miranda. Prospero then enslaved him, shackled his ankles and now forces him to do all the menial household tasks. Also on the island is Ariel, (Nancy Rodriguez) a spirit of air and fire who had refused to do Sycorax’s bidding and was imprisoned in a tree. Prospero freed her, though he keeps her in thrall to him, promising her freedom at some distant time.

As Antonia, along with Alonso, and Alonso’s brother Sebastian (Tyrone Wilson) and son Ferdinand (John Tufts), are sailing home from a wedding, Prospero sees his opportunity for revenge. He conjures up a storm to shipwreck his enemies on the enchanted island. It is with Miranda’s concern for the victims of that storm that we first see a chink in Prospero’s emotional armor.

Prospero watches and abets as the young Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda and observes Antonia conspire against Alonso with Sebastian as once she conspired against Prospero with Alonso.

However, the consequences of Prospero’s vengeful spellbinding ultimately overwhelm him with remorse. By the play’s end, he has forgiven his enemies, freed Caliban and Ariel, relinquished his control over his daughter, planned his return to Milan and, most importantly, forsworn his magic powers. Perhaps, in the process, he has regained not only the duchy of Milan but also his soul.

Derrick Lee Weeden is a perfect Prospero. Powerful, regal, commanding. He is also vulnerable, mostly in his scenes with and watching Miranda. It is that vulnerability that makes his renunciation at the end of the play entirely believable.

In this production, Ariel is a less than ethereal spirit. Appel has chosen to emphasize her elements of fire and passion. She is in love with Prospero, reluctant to let go as she longs for freedom from the soft wrist shackles that nonetheless bind her.

In contrast, Caliban is mostly beast. Costumed in heavy rope netting and prominent scars, Dan Donohue’s Caliban is an immensely angry and truly dangerous adversary. In the drunken revels with the shipwrecked Trinculo and Stephano, they would do well to tread softly around him. Appel’s concept of Caliban is not simply an instinctual, earthy aspect of humanity. Here, he is a malevolent and shrewd being and Prospero’s decision to keep him in chains and bound by magic is not as arbitrary as some productions would have it.

Appel has relied on a familiar “team” for the design aspects of the production. The austere set is by William Bloodgood, the contrasting lush lighting by Robert Peterson. Costumes by Deborah Dryden juxtapose the simplicity of the island with the formality of the court. Her sensual designs for Ariel emphasize the concept of the spirit’s “shape shifting” at Prospero’s bidding. Music and sound design is by Todd Barton.

Appel has also called upon OSF veteran dramaturg Barry Kraft, fight director John Sipes and assistant fight director U. Jonathan Toppo.

“The Tempest” and all its majesty and wonder plays in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre through the season.

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