Theater Review: Dense With Quality Acting, An Inspired Set Steals Dallas Theater Center’s The Tempest

As you take your seat at the Wyly Theater, where Dallas Theater Center is opening its season with The Tempest, you may think you have stumbled upon an episode of Lost staged on an island in heaven.

There is an outline of an airplane onstage with rows of airplane seats that some of the cast line up to occupy in formal movements, before settling in for the doomed crash (a shipwreck in Shakespeare’s original text). Modern style airline announcements, and single file audience seating on the second level complete the aeronautical vision.

The island of these unfortunate castaways is fashioned by a fine metallic mesh and a wrinkled crepe-like background, slanting slopes with leafless trees, temporary holes in the stage for egress, with whiteness dominating all. Tony Award-nominated Beowulf Boritt (The Who’s Tommy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman all at DTC) has created a set so incredible, suitable, and magical that it deserves top billing along with its start-studded cast.

Using Shakespeare’s last attributed play, but the first to be printed in the First Folio as DTC’s opener and the third play in a four-year Shakespearean cycle by director Kevin Moriarty (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry IV) presents an interesting symmetry of placement and progression. A tragedy in the 2012-2013 will complete the already fantastic cycle, but it will have to be sublime to supplant this most transcendent of all.

Moriarty infuses one of the Bard’s most enchanting plays about politics, forgiveness, love, and humanity with his typical gift for detail and whimsy, but shows just enough restraint to give us (dare I say it?) an understated, almost subdued romance that still packs an emotional wallop. That he is able to discover such nuance, heart, and comedy while using a sprightly pace (less than two hours with no intermission), and allowing the talent of his actors to blossom speak volumes.

DTC stalwart Chamblee Ferguson plays the rightful Duke of Milan, Prospero. His brother, Antonio (J. Brent Alford in a properly evil turn) usurped and banished the popular yet bookish recluse along with his young daughter, Miranda (Abbey Siegworth), to an uninhabited island. Using his book-bought arts, Prospero enslaves the ethereal spirit Ariel (Dallas native Hunter Ryan Herdlicka on loan from New York and Broadway) and the more earth-bound Caliban (Joe Nemmers).

The crash has brought the former duke’s enemies under his power, including Ferdinand (Steven Michael Walters doing his best passionate, wide-eyed wonder), the son of the King of Naples, Alonso (Matthew Tomlanovich), whom Prospero eventually sees as a worthy match for his daughter.

The drunken trio of Caliban, Stephano (the typically awesome Lee Trull), and Trinculo (a high dudgeon-voiced Cliff Miller more than holding his own) provide constant comic relief to a play that could easily descend into a weird and mean-spirited exercise in delayed vengeance. Herdlicka’s Ariel (a part often played by a woman) is a Puck-like, flighty, and funny spirit. He has a muscular dancer’s body and an angel’s voice.  It’s a grounded, but whirling portrayal. Nemmers as Caliban summons his inner simian as he crouches and hunches over as the slavish, yet rebellious son of a witch with a halting, yet eloquent speech delivery befitting a noble savage. Jerry Russell plays the goodly Gonzalo, an affectionate old councilor with a refreshing optimism and belief. His “golden age” speech, which Shakespeare borrowed from the English translation of Montaigne, is a thing of beauty.

Finally, in a part almost permanently associated with a wizened John Gielgud, Ferguson makes it delightfully his own. What he may lack in advanced age, or in a commanding demeanor, he makes up for in a studied, melancholy gravitas that peaks during his final speech. That epilogue is a sustained pitch for indulgence and theatrical faith, and a defense of the drama. It’s as if Shakespeare himself is announcing that his “art to enchant” has ended, and reveals that his goal “was to please.” It’s a chilling and raw moment that knocks you off of your feet.

The look and sound of the play by the team of Boritt (scenic and costume design), Clifton Taylor (lighting design), and Broken Chord (sound design and composition) complete a perfect vision of the play with descending feasts of bounty, a suspended harpy, snowflakes and twinkle lights, a loping hellhound, dark Italian suits, Juicy gangsta sweats, and flawless and clear music.