Amara Webb and Phillip Shinn in The Tempest (Brian Collins, Heart of America Shakespeare Festival)
The Tempest has always been one of my personal favorite works of Shakespeare’s because of just how many elements there are at play between all the quickly rotating plot lines. The show alternates quickly between romance, political subterfuge, physical comedy, family drama, and mystical sorcery. When not handled well, it can all be a bit of a jumble, but at its best, it is a fantastically unrelenting whirlwind. The current production running at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival doesn’t exactly transcend to the point of excellence, but it’s an extremely solid mounting of a difficult and delightful play.
The Tempest follows multiple groups of people wandering the same island. Prospero, a sorcerer and the former Duke of Milan (played by festival staple Bruce Roach) and his daughter Miranda (Amara Webb) have been stranded on the island for a decade-plus thanks to a betrayal committed by Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio (Paul Molnar). Aided by Ariel (Chelsea Rolfes), a sprite the sorcerer has enslaved and tasked to do his bidding, Prospero uses his magic to raise a storm and wreck a ship carrying Antonio, along with the King of Naples, Alonso (Scott Cordes), and his entourage (Sam Cordes, Keenan Ramos, and Terry O’Reagan). Alonso’s son Ferdinand (Phillip Shinn) gets separated in the storm and meets/immediately falls in love with Miranda. R.H. Wilhoit and Matt Rapport are excellent as Trinculo and Stephano, the show’s clowns, involved in their own insular subplot with the man-monster Caliban (also enslaved by Prospero and much more bitter about it than Ariel), played by Jaques Roy. All three are excellent physical comedians and their skills are utilized here to the fullest.
This production of The Tempest is set against a stylized backdrop of 19th Century colonialism, and the costumes of the recently arrived colonizers, bedecked in military garb and pith helmets, serve as a visual foil to the bohemian look of Prospero and Miranda. (The thematic choices on display are especially interesting, seeing as Prospero boasts about his own colonization of the island after he landed there, enslaving its inhabitants and declaring himself ruler. These contradictions are compelling and absolutely present in Shakespeare’s text, though often left unexplored by productions of the classic. This mounting doesn’t choose to investigate these questions much beyond the design choices but Mary Traylor’s costumes in particular present some intriguing contradictions.)
Most of what audiences will see on the stage in Southmoreland Park will feel familiar—which is perfectly fine, these tropes are classics for a reason. (If there’s a better way to depict a storm than waving strips of fabric across the stage, I don’t need to see it.) But director Sidonie Garrett has introduced a few innovative elements, most notably the two musicians (Amado Espinoza and Greg Mackender) performing live onstage, turning Ariel’s haunting songs into fully-fledged musical numbers and providing generally engaging accompaniment throughout. And Gene Emerson Friedman’s set serves as an opulent and visually complex backdrop for all the action.
Ultimately, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival delivers on the promise and expectations of high-quality, free, and accessible classical work that serves as the foundation for an entertaining night out under the stars in the middle of the city.
“The Tempest,” a production of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, runs through July 2 at Southmoreland Park, 4600 Oak St. For more information visit www.kcshakes.org.