Prospero walks onstage, dims the house lights with a sweeping gesture and huddles over a fire to conjure the storm that will wrack the ship carrying his brother, usurper of his title and life. The crew of the ship is arrayed behind him, lightning flashes, thunder detonates somewhere just above our heads and the four — count 'em, four — Ariels stand amid the terrified mariners, rhythmically swaying in mirror image to the rolling waves. The storm shakes ship and crew so terribly that barely a quarter of their lines are intelligible from the audience, but the sense — the import — of everything is felt in the stomach and the heart. And then the Ariels split and with delicious glee throw half the noble retinue overboard and lead the remainder into darkness, while Prospero huddles over his fire, smiling serenely as he boldly strides down the path of vengeance.
Director Jerry Vogel maintains this standard of visual beauty, drama and magic throughout this magnificent St. Louis Shakespeare production of The Tempest. Credit is due to Cristie Johnston's set, which is dominated by a knurled tree that yawns up into the ceiling and serves as perch and pulpit for Prospero, and also to Jeff Roberts' bombastic sound design, which leaves room for subtlety as well as eruptions of eldritch power. But Vogel's clear plan for the tale — the resurrection of Prospero in both status and spirit — guides cast and crew.
Now about those four Ariels. Emily Baker serves as voice and the "lead" Ariel, while Macia Noorman, Jenn Bock and Katie Puglisi act as the spirit's grace, strength and magical essence, respectively. Each of the four actresses brings something necessary to the role; Baker gets the lines, but Bock, Noorman and Puglisi provide the illusion of real magic.
As Prospero, Robert Mitchell maintains the serene power he demonstrates in the early moments of the play. He fumbles his staff often enough that one wishes he'd either rehearsed spinning it more or opted for a different action to signal the working of magic, but these are momentary distractions. Watch as Prospero slyly observes his plan — to make his daughter, Miranda (Betsy Bowman), and the Neapolitan prince, Ferdinand (Aaron Dodd), fall in love — bear fruit, and you'll catch a beatific smile passing across Mitchell's face; that same smile veils serious menace while politely threatening Ferdinand to save himself for marriage once his troth is pledged. Fathers of teenage girls will recognize both grins, and envy one of them.
Bowman and Dodd are terrific together as our young lovers, he a courtly gallant beguiled by the strangeness of circumstance (marooned on an island with a beautiful girl and strange spirits), and she a beguiling tomboy who knows nothing of men. Miranda punches and batters Ferdinand casually, a rough island girl nothing like the women he ever met, but if you'd grown up with Caliban, you'd have to know how to throw a good punch.
This Caliban is portrayed, or perhaps channeled, by Michael Juncal. Naked but for a loincloth and half his body spotted like a cheetah, Juncal creates a snarling, spitting Caliban. Clambering across the stage on all fours, grinding himself into the floor with delight upon first tasting alcohol, his eyes lambent with unadulterated rage when plotting the murder of Prospero, Juncal is a preternaturally physical actor. He harnesses it in service of the story, however; Caliban never chews the scenery, although he does urinate on some of it. Fairly steaming from his exertions by the end of the play, Juncal has his finest moment when Prospero forgives him — the look of incredulous disbelief mingled with joy that smoothes his twisted face into a beaming moon is the culmination of the play. Vengeance is forgotten, grace is attained, and everyone — even the bestial — is redeemed.
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