Review: ‘Tempest’ a satisfying whirl of wit and wizardry at Old Globe
“All the world’s a stage,” as Shakespeare never said in “The Tempest.”
That much-quoted line actually is from “As You Like It,” but it would fit nicely into the Bard’s more fantasy-drenched play — particularly the playful and sometimes showbiz-splashy “Tempest” that director Joe Dowling just opened under the stars at the Old Globe.
“The Tempest” has a rep as a work that slyly comments on the act of making theater; its central character, after all, is a sorcerer who conjures visions that amaze, amuse and alarm a small “audience” sequestered in a place set apart from everyday reality.
But with one memorable scene in particular, Dowling and his capable cast in this absorbing Shakespeare Festival opener push that notion one inspired step further.
The director, unleashing a little manipulative magic of his own, splits the famous storm scene that opens the play. First we see it as Shakespeare wrote it. Then we see a kind of reprise, unspooling like a clip from a movie or newsreel.
And watching with delight, cozied up in one of the old theater seats that dot the Globe’s outdoor Davies stage, is Kate Burton as Prospera, the sorcerer who has whipped up this tempest to shipwreck and bring rough justice to some old foes.
Towering above her on Alexander Dodge’s impressive set are the decrepit remnants of what looks to be a once-grand theater, its balconies shedding plaster and giving way to the vegetation of the remote island where Prospera resides in exile with her daughter, Miranda (Nora Carroll).
It adds a little extra resonance to know that Prospera is the deposed Duke of Milan, and that Burton — a Broadway and screen veteran and three-time Tony Award nominee — herself hails from showbiz nobility: She is the daughter of the late Welsh actor Richard Burton.
Shakespeare, of course, wrote the character as Prospero. But Dowling has smartly opened up the piece by making the central figure a woman and mother, which lends a different sense of tenderness to her bond with young Miranda.
At the same time, Burton is utterly commanding in the role — interpreting the playwright’s language eloquently, and bringing forth fire and fury that set in bold relief Prospera’s affecting turn toward mercy and forgiveness near play’s end.
Her eternally wise line, “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,” embodies a sentiment that seems in woefully short supply in our own time, and Burton makes it resound.
Does Dowling, the former longtime artistic chief of Minneapolis’ esteemed Guthrie Theater, push the almost vaudevillian streak of this staging a little far? (My answer: Yeah, a little.)
It might depend on what you make of, say, a trio of supernaturally spangled island spirits (David Israel Reynoso’s costumes are wildly imaginative and at times out of this world) who croon a Motown medley and look something like a girl group that escaped from “Blade Runner.” (Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting saturates that scene and others in rich, colorful tones.)
Music is always a huge presence in “The Tempest,” and composer Keith Thomas (with a boost from sound designer Jonathan Deans) sets the play’s lyrics to a satisfying, often witty range of styles, from haunting ballad to tropical booty-shaker.
Philippe Bowgen, who’s admirably agile as the spirit Ariel, brings pleasing vocals to several of those tunes, and he’s a key part of what is a strong cast all around.
Carroll is a winningly warm presence as Miranda, the lonely daughter who falls for the castaway Ferdinand (a suitably dashing Sam Avishay), thanks to her mom’s machinations.
Manoel Felciano is a spiteful, frightful but still humanized Caliban, the half-man, half-beast island denizen whom Prospera once adopted but now has enslaved after his attempted transgressions against Miranda (his chastity belt tells part of that story).
The Globe favorite Robert Foxworth makes for a deeply poignant Alonso, the Neapolitan king who conspired with Prospera’s brother, the avaricious Antonio (René Thornton Jr.), and others against the ex-duke and now fears his own son Ferdinand is drowned.
Lizan Mitchell brings stirring voice and an almost revival-meeting sense of emotional potency to Gonzala — another character whose gender has been switched from the original Shakespeare, along with Francisca, played sharply by Yadira Correa. They are among the most sympathetic of those whom Prospera has brought to the island.
And you could make a whole play — a very entertaining one — out of the antics of flunkies Stephano (Robert Dorfman) and Trinculo (Andrew Weems), the booze-bearers whom Caliban takes for gods.
The hilarious Dorfman in particular seems to have just parachuted in from some Mediterranean variation on the Borscht Belt; the comedy peaks with a scene in which he and his cohorts don Prospera’s “trumpery” — goofy costume pieces or, as the dictionary has it, “showy but insubstantial apparel.”
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” as Prospera observes. This “Tempest” teems with dreams both wild and indelible.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, plus July 2 and 16; no performances July 4 or 15. Through July 22.
Where: Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
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