Actors breathe new life into Shakespeare classic

Performers rehearse the opening shipwreck scene of "The Tempest" at the Diego Rivera Theatre on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/The Guardsman
Performers rehearse the opening shipwreck scene of “The Tempest” at the Diego Rivera Theatre on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/The Guardsman

By Mary Strope/Special to The Guardsman

If you’re going to get shipwrecked, it might as well happen on a mysterious island where nothing is as it seems.

“The Tempest,” that ran through March 16 at City College’s Diego Rivera Theatre, is Shakespeare’s only play set in the New World, on the storm-tossed island of Bermuda.

Heather Cherry leads the cast as Prospera, the rightful Duchess of Milan. Her scheming sister, Antonia (Genevieve Smith), has sequestered her to the eerie isle for the past 12 years.

Prospera spent the time improving her sorcery skills. When Antonia and the King of Milan happen to sail by, the duchess conjures a storm to strand them on the island.

Then she and her minions work their magic to restore her rightful royal status.

After splitting up the ship’s survivors, Prospera orchestrates a romance between her daughter, Miranda, played by Lana Rae Jarvis, and the king’s son, Ferdinand.

Meanwhile, the other parties roam the island, scheming for power as they fall prey to various magical spells. Impish spirit Ariel (Catz Forsman) scampers from group to group as he does Prospera’s bidding, sending people into reveries with his sleep-inducing song. Siren-like fairies appear when magic is afoot, dreamily wafting around the bewitched souls.

Both Prospera and Antonia were originally written as men, and nothing is lost in the gender switch. Part of Shakespeare’s appeal is his adaptability, and the women effortlessly fill the roles of the power-hungry royals.

Prospera’s commanding performance and swashbuckling attire—gold cape, leather belt and tall boots—highlight her central role in the show. As the cause and controller of everyone’s actions, the mostly-benevolent sorceress needs a strong actor, and Cherry delivers.

Other standouts include Michael Vetter, as loose-limbed jester Trinculo, and Bruce Bothwell as drunken steward Stephano.

Jarvis, as 15-year-old Miranda, fits the role nicely and really seems like an angsty teenager. It would have been great to take advantage of the switch from Prospero to Prospera, and see more mother-daughter rapport between the two.

The scenery emphasizes the play’s off-kilter tone. Stars twinkle in the night sky and floating orbs light up chaotically. Stone staircases and platforms etched with ancient-looking symbols are surrounded by dead branches, clustered like altars, while dissonant music adds a sophisticated touch to the production.

Shakespeare’s tragicomedy also includes plenty of fantasy and magically-induced romance.

Despite some knife-wielding and lots of murderous threats, “The Tempest” is ultimately a lighthearted rendering of the classic creepy island story we still know and love today.

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