By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
A woman, in a hospital bed in Pittsburgh, is dying from late-stage breast cancer. She dreams of a magical island where she can exact revenge on her enemies and protect her daughter from the outside world. Nearing the end of her life, the audience is whisked away to the stormy isle inside her cavernous imagination in a beautiful retelling of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”
Is the story just a dream?
To quote legendary comic book writer, Alan Moore, “This story is imaginary…aren’t they all?”
All stories are as real as we want them to be. And Shakespeare’s tale is simultaneously very real and very fantastical.
Prospero (Tamara Tunie) wields powerful magicks to protect Miranda (Kerry Warren). When she spots a boat carrying her sibling and rival, Tonio (Rami Margron), she summons a storm to sink the ship. Lightning flashes! Thunder strikes! The ship wrecks! The crew is scattered about the isle, marooned, grieving for their compatriots, unaware that many of them still live!
Pospero has two magical creatures in his service, a nymph, Ariel (Janelle Velasquez) and an unexplainable humanoid creature, Caliban (Shammen McCune).
On the isle, one cluster from the shipwreck includes the queen, Alonso (Deena Aziz), her advisor, Gonzalo (Laurie Klatscher), Sebastian (Aryana Sedarati) and the aforementioned Tonio. The shipmaster, Trinculo (Jamie Agnello), and the boatswain, Stephano (Bethany Cuputo), are marooned elsewhere on the island. The queen’s contingent is menaced by Ariel. While the shipmates Trinculo and Stephano encounter the woeful Caliban.
Meanwhile, the queen’s child, Ferdinand (Rad Pereira) is similarly marooned, but Ferdy isn’t tortured by sprites or dealing with monsters. Instead, the queen’s first born happens upon Miranda and a romance blossoms.
The situation gets desperate for all of the castaways until Prospero has a change of heart and vows to no longer use magic, even though the magic is keeping Prospero alive.
Marya Sea Kaminski directs the thrilling adaptation, casting women in all the roles. Correction: Casting amazing performers for each and every role. Every. Role.
The stage crackles with energy and vitality throughout the entire show.
For hundreds of years, from the ancient Greeks through Shakespearean times and beyond, actors were male. Holy Peg Hewes! This production is long overdue.
We might not ever need men on stage again. It is, indeed, a brave new world!
Tunie is dynamic. She plays Prospero not as a wizened wizard but a powerful conjurer, more Storm of the X-Men than Gandalf of Middle-Earth.
Kaminski abbreviated several scenes, especially the ones with the Trinculo and Stephano, but a truncated Trinculo and a shortened Stephano served the show well. The clowns were never funnier. Caputo and Agnello kept the audience in riotous fits of laughter nearly every moment they were on stage.
Pereira and Warren were a sweet pairing, reminding us that it doesn’t matter if it’s a man and woman…love is love.
Klatscher and Aziz have a different kind of chemistry. You can feel the affection from the back row. It’s Philia instead of Eros, but it was just as palpable.
McCune is remarkable. Caliban is a creature whose soul is crushed by years of servitude, desperately yearning for freedom. Her anguish is visceral.
There were other incredible elements that made “The Tempest” magnificent.
The O’Reilly is magically transformed by L.B. Morse’s scenic and multimedia design. Craggy gray rocks jut skyward with Prospero’s parapet (say that five times fast) peeking out on top. At the very beginning of the play, a Fast-Mo Pittsburgh cityscape is gloriously projected onto the slate backdrop. It is breathtaking.
Morse was aided by Nicole Pearce’s lighting design and sound design by Andre Pluess and stunning costumes by Nephelie Andonyadis.
There were some mind-boggling visuals in the show, including a fierce harpy that issued out a dire warning, with flaming red eyes and billowy wings. It was Julie Taymor-esque (that’s a thing now).
“The Tempest” is not one of Shakespeare’s finest plays (come at me). “Hamlet,” “MacBeth,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream” get the top honors. “The Tempest” has several flaws. Prospero has a sudden change of heart that comes out of nowhere. There’s a lot of extraneous plotlines that seemingly go nowhere. And blah, blah, blah.
That said, it’s a spectacular production. Kaminski frames the story in a unique way enhancing the pathos.
“The Tempest” was the stuff that dreams are made on.
“The Tempest” runs through February 24 at the O’Reilly Theater, 622 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.