Theater Review: CSC’s “The Tempest” — A Brilliantly Kinetic Staging

By Erik Nikander

CSC pulled out all the stops for its turn at The Tempest, bringing together a cast that is more than up to the challenge of knitting together poignant drama and madcap comedy.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Directed By Steven Maler. Staged by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in the Parkman Bandstand in the Boston Common, Boston, MA, through August 8.

John Douglas Thompson (Prospero) and John Lam (Ariel) in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s The Tempest. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva.

It makes a great deal of sense that Commonwealth Shakespeare Company chose The Tempest as their 2021 Shakespeare on the Common production — after enduring COVID-19, audiences are especially primed to relate to the play’s main character. After all, didn’t 2020 make Prosperos of us all? Suddenly jettisoned from normal life by forces beyond our control, we found ourselves — much like the Bard’s mercurial sorcerer – forced to live in isolation, watching and waiting for the winds to change in our favor. That’s not to say that CSC’s take on The Tempest needed a global pandemic (in retreat?) in order to rise above the standard. Because it draws on our shared experience of the past year, the company’s exceptional production resonates on deeper, more powerful levels.

Straddling the line between comedy and tragedy, The Tempest focuses on Prospero (John Douglas Thompson), the former Duke of Milan, who was ousted from his position and found refuge on a mysterious island inhabited only by himself, his daughter Miranda (Nora Eschenheimer), and the grotesque fish-man Caliban (Nael Nacer). Prospero may be stranded, but he’s far from helpless — he makes use of his magic staff and command of the spirit Ariel (John Lam) to summon a storm that wrecks on his island a ship carrying the most important people from his former life. Once the castaways have washed ashore, Prospero gets to work — at least at first — to avenge the wrong that’s been done to him.

As a dramatic character, Prospero is a true force of nature — both literally, thanks to his control of the elements, and through his complex and powerful personality. He’s both a master manipulator and a kind, loving father, a seeker of revenge who sports a surprisingly tender heart. John Douglas Thompson brings all of the figure’s contradictory and stormy moods to life with gusto — his rages and tears are equally convincing. His passions shift as swiftly as the winds, which makes Thompson’s magus somewhat unpredictable. We never quite know what reactions will come next, and this spontaneity is underlined by an ever-so-subtle hint of madness. (Understandable, given the guy has been stranded on an island for years and years.) Thompson’s richly layered, roller-coaster performance epitomizes the production’s adventurous spirit. Viewers are captivated, partly because they are kept on their toes.

One unusual-for-Shakespeare aspect of The Tempest is the love story between Miranda and Ferdinand (Michael Underhill). It goes so smoothly. The lovebirds are smitten almost immediately (unlike Beatrice and Benedick of Much Ado About Nothing). There’s no intractable family feud to spoil their courtship, either: Prospero sets up the match so he approves of it right away. This romance may not be the most compelling in the Bard’s canon, but Eschenheimer and Underhill are terrific at expressing the excitement and possibility of young love — their yearning for each other is truly touching, even if the speed of their courtship might even make a Disney princess blush.

The Tempest may not be an out-and-out comedy, but the script includes plenty of comic relief. Namely, through the trio of Caliban, the clownish Trinculo (John Kuntz), and the drunk butler Stephano (Fred Sullivan, Jr.). Caliban, furious that he must serve Prospero, convinces the two bumbling shipwreck survivors that they can usurp the sorcerer and rule the island in his place. Since the pair has been helping themselves to the ship’s stores of booze and want to be bosses, they readily agree. Nacer’s howling, feral Caliban is both hilarious and terrifying, darting about like a deranged acrobat, tangled up in ropes that symbolize his bondage. He’s all raw nerves; on the other hand, Stephano is so blitzed on wine that he barely seems to know where he is, and Trinculo is just along for the ride. Watching their mismatched personalities play off each other is a delight.

Michael Underhill (Ferdinand) and Nora Eschenheimer (Miranda) in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s The Tempest. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva.

Director Steven Maler keeps The Tempest lively, emphasizing movement as well as poetry. The casting of John Lam, a professional dancer, as Ariel exemplifies this approach — he leaps about the stage with expert grace, imbuing the sprite with a sense of otherworldly magic. At other times, characters scramble about in slapstick chaos, kicking the sand that covers the floor of the stage and casting it up into the air, creating brilliantly kinetic images. Even the backdrop of the set, co-designed by Clint Ramos and Jeffrey Petersen, encourages impressive possibilities for physicality. Rather than a curtain, the stage is backed by a wall of hanging ropes that waver in the breeze, parting to let spirits pass through — a veil between worlds.

The production’s overall design is straightforward yet engaging, conjuring up a vision of a fantastical island without resorting to overkill. Nancy Leary’s costumes are especially creative, ensuring that the characters and their various affiliations are always distinct. Though freshly-shipwrecked characters like Antonio (Remo Airaldi) and Gonzala (Siobhan Juanita Brown) wear the elegant clothes of the upper class, Prospero and Miranda’s garments are cobbled together from what appear to be old sails and other scraps of cloth from their journey. Nautical touches abound throughout the costuming, from ragged harnesses and netting to pretty seashells. Details like these offer nods to realism while ensuring that the play’s world remains strange, self-consciously unnatural.

After a year and change without live, in-person theater productions, it is thrilling to watch a play out on the Boston Common, surrounded by a crowd of people. It would probably be a terrific night out even if the production was mediocre but, thankfully, CSC pulled out all the stops for its turn at The Tempest, bringing together a cast that is more than up to the challenge of knitting together poignant drama and madcap comedy. No spoilers here, but the staging achieves an impressively empowering ending, and that feels like a good omen. If Prospero can find a way back to something like normalcy after his long and lonely journey, then perhaps we can as well.

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Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.

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