Review | The Tempest: spare and wondrous

Meri Golden as Prospero in “The Tempest.”

Theatre Coup d’Etat heads into Halloween with spirits and spells in an absorbing and taut production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

We sit in a square, empty room. Chairs in a circle – one row only. A few dramatic lights. Sound effects. Enter the actors in evocative costumes, and the story begins. I’m still amazed that this world can be called up with so little. Costume designer Chelsea Wren Hanvy must be recognized for its dazzling exposition scene: Prospero in a gracefully tattered grey cloak, sprinkled with bits of sparkly stuff; Miranda in a pale, patched-together, shorter dress: the spirits in gauzy greens that melted into the scene. Lovely!

Prospero (a woman, in this case) once Duke of Milan, has survived a coup on a remote island with her daughter Miranda (Stephanie Ruas), a sinister creature named Caliban and the spirit(s) Ariel. This all works because she escaped with her books of magic, too, and has in the ensuing 12 years become an accomplished sorcerer. By the time a tempest happens to drop Prospero’s shipwrecked brother, the Queen of Naples and her son, a long-lost friend and others on her beach, she’s ready to avenge the wrongs she’s suffered and set her daughter up in a fine marriage.

There’s no denying that there’s a different dynamic when Prospero is Miranda’s mother, but the construct holds up with James Napolean Stone’s insightful direction. Meri Golden carefully negotiated the facets of this complex character, decisive and comfortable wielding her power, but glimpses early on hinted of a “soft revenge.” I appreciated Golden’s gentle touch and comfortability with the language. And what a gorgeous and versatile speaking voice!

I didn’t understand why this production referenced her as Duke of Milan, however. Alonso (a strong performance by Sue Gerver) is called Queen of Naples, so why not Duchess? Small thing, but I worked a bit at keeping track of the gender switches in this familiar play.

Ariel (Kelly Nelson) is also female and always accompanied by two more (female) spirits – a triumvirate, you might say, who serve Prospero with well-timed spells – and siren songs, which was an enchanting touch. They glided and sneaked about the space with dance-like ease.

Craig James Hostetler plays the tortured Caliban: hollow eyes and bare pate, rough clothes hang from his lanky frame, loose fishnet drapes around his neck, barely a shirt. Hostetler nicely balances what’s pathetic about this character with the need to contribute to much of the humor. This isn’t easy, given today’s sensibilities. Shakespeare’s audiences probably didn’t care as much about the unfortunate Caliban as we might.

There’s plenty of comic relief in the form of a drunken butler, Stephano (Madeleine Rowe) and Trinculo (Kevin Fanshaw), a jester. Fanshaw, in particular, shows an aptitude for physical comedy. The silly pair align with Caliban in a bit of clever nonsense. (The combination of these three has to be one of Shakespeare’s most bizarre.) They hatch a sinister plot, but get so drunk that nothing comes of it.

The lovers. Well, Ferdinand, played by Clay Man Soo was youthful, giddy, naïve, charming. She’s never seen a man at all, so it’s easy to see why Miranda loves him instantly. Not as easy for his part. Miranda (Stephanie Ruas) is pretty, intrigued by him, and mysterious. But did she ever smile?

The Tempest runs through November 17 at SpringHouse Ministry Center in Minneapolis (on 28th Street near Lyndale Ave.). I suggest you brush up on the story line. There are no programs and the lively acoustics in the space tends to muddy the diction – but, everybody has a front row seat!


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