A man with a tattooed chest and shaved head walks onto an almost bare stage. Rummaging in a pile of clothes, he selects a cloak and throws it over his shoulders. Then he pulls out a gnarled wood staff. He raises it over the audience and the house lights come down. Turning, he raises the staff again and the stage lights fade to black. Then the staff itself lights up and Prospero the magician creates a roiling storm in a sea of silky fabric.
The Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre's production of “The Tempest” is not your traditional “men in tights” Shakespeare. Contemporary dress, a minimalist set and atmospheric synthesizer music combine to bring Shakespeare's last play into the 21st century. Some on-stage seating allows cast members to interact with the audience, which was especially entertaining for the children at last Sunday's matinee at the University of Central Arkansas's Reynolds Performance Hall.
Prospero, whose position as duke of Milan was usurped by his brother, is movingly played by David Alford, who also directs the production. Kristy Barrington is Miranda, the daughter who shares his island exile. When the brother, Antonio (Kevin Browne); Ferdinand, prince of Naples (Tom Littman), and other courtiers and their servants are shipwrecked by Prospero's storm, the magician has an opportunity for revenge. Instead, he seeks reconciliation with Antonio and blesses the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand; Alford invites the audience to stand and witness their betrothal. In addition to Prospero and Miranda, the island is peopled by their slaves — the fairy, Ariel, and the brutish Caliban. Marin Miller, who also stars in the AST's “Romeo and Juliet,” is a sprightly Ariel (think Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell). Brett Ihler's Caliban, who believes himself the rightful master of the island, galumphs and growls his discontent with servitude.
The production is distinguished by excellent ensemble work, especially in the interaction of Ariel with Prospero, and the drunken servants Stephano (Dan Matisa) and Trinculo (Joshua Rice) with Caliban. The actors' movements range from bawdy to balletic.
James Alan Harris as Alonso, king of Naples; Greyson Lewis as Sebastian, his brother, and Chris Fritzges as Gonzalo, his advisor and Prospero's old friend, complete the cast.
A smaller theater might better serve the actors' efforts; occasionally a line delivered upstage is lost. But the poetic language for which “The Tempest” is best known comes through, as when Ihler's Caliban describes his island home as “full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”
And when Alford's Prospero tells the audience, “Our revels now are ended,” 21st-century hindsight makes it easy to believe that Shakespeare is saying goodbye to the theater. He even invites us to see — in the theater's illusions — a metaphor for our own existence: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Then, in his final curtain speech, Prospero asks the audience to forgive him for any wrong he might have done.
The Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre will give two more performances of “The Tempest,” on Sunday, June 22, and Saturday, June 28, at Reynolds. The play runs for 90 minutes without intermission. Curtain for both performances is at 7:30 p.m.
The AST's season also includes six performances of “Romeo and Juliet,” three more performances of the opening production, “The Sound of Music,” and two performances of the children's show, “The Arkansaw Bear.” “The Arkansaw Bear” will be performed Saturday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. To order tickets or for more information, call 501-450-3265 or 1-866-810-0012.