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Marooned Amid Manmade Detritus, Philip Lehl's Prospero Works His Magic Hot

Cynthia Greenwood
Written by Cynthia Greenwood     April 17, 2012    
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Marooned Amid Manmade Detritus, Philip Lehl's Prospero Works His Magic
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In the Classical Theatre Company’s staging of The Tempest, director John Johnston privileges intimacy over the pomp and pageantry that is built into this and other late-career Shakespearean romances, including The Winter’s Tale. By eliminating the fourth-act masque in which three goddesses bless the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda, Johnston is free to take full advantage of the “black box” potential of Houston’s Obsidian Art Space. 

In this zany production, Prospero’s enchanted island is replete with the “rough magic” practiced by the exiled Duke of Milan and his mercurial slave Ariel. But in Johnston’s environmentally conscious vision, Prospero’s island is also tainted by a scenic backdrop of ocean debris resembling a wall of human trash.

In a novel opening scene, a night storm rocks the ship carrying Prospero’s usurpers, who cling desperately for dear life onto a thick rope suspended directly above patrons seated in row one. The suspense and chaos of the impending shipwreck is deftly wrought, despite the tendency of the music to muffle the impassioned shouting of several of the actors.

Seasoned actor Philip Lehl imagines the exiled Prospero as a thoughtful, energetic, staff-wielding figure, and the actor’s performance is especially satisfying during exchanges with Ariel (Blair Knowles), represented here as a female spirit who appears in perpetual dance-like motion. Lehl delivers Prospero’s magic with effusive, sweeping gestures from all sides and corners of the house. And whereas Miranda, the duke’s innocent daughter, and Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples, are largely well interpreted by Jacqui Grady and Matthew Keenan, several important scenes featuring this couple were difficult to hear from the third row of this tiny, 75-seat house.

Xzavien Hollins’s interpretation of the traitorous Antonio, Prospero’s brother and the usurping Duke of Milan, is subtle, robust and commanding. Equally impressive is Dylan Godwin, who doubled as a cane-wielding Gonzalo and a debauched Stephano. In addition, Ted Doolittle offers a satisfying portrayal of Alonso, the King of Naples who is estranged from his young son Ferdinand. Key scenes involving the plotting between Antonio and Sebastian (Zach Bruton) against Alonso and Gonzalo were among the most polished and best choreographed in this production.

A good portion of this show consists of silly scenes involving the drunken revels of Stephano, Trinculo (Jacqui Grady), and a frenetically jumpy Caliban (Kregg Alan Dailey). But modern troupes consistently have trouble communicating the humor of Shakespearean low comedy, and this trio failed to evoke much laughter among the Sunday audience, despite their efforts.

The set design, representative of the twenty-first century mass of floating garbage and pollution created by Pacific Ocean currents, is also intended to remind us of Antonio’s betrayal of his brother. In Johnston’s vision, Antonio’s act of robbing Prospero of his dukedom is tantamount to our contemporary destruction of the planet. Jodi Bobrovsky’s scenic design cleverly evokes modern humankind’s propensity for trash-making through its huge backdrop of sheets, rags, chairs, plastic bottles, toilet seats, plastic chairs, and all manner of junk that appears to have washed ashore and littered Prospero’s domain of exile.

Artistic Director John Johnston has made great strides in realizing his goal of building a resident company in Houston devoted exclusively to classical theatre. In its first four seasons, Classical Theatre Company has staged productions of Sophocles’ Antigone, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, de Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love, Moliere’s Tartuffe, Ibsen’s Ghosts, Shaw’s Candida, and a rare offering of Colley Cibber’s Restoration comedy, Love’s Last Shift. Classical Theatre Company’s previous and current seasons included productions of King Lear and The Tempest, a remarkable accomplishment in a city where resident companies may put Shakespeare on their season calendars every three to five years. (While the annual Houston Shakespeare Festival sponsored by University of Houston’s School of Theatre and Dance is a cornerstone of classic theatre in this city, it is still a free, “open air” affair that takes place during the hottest evenings of early August, while many residents are vacationing to escape the insufferable heat.) Classical Theatre Company has not yet inhabited its new permanent space at Studio 101, but its promise to offer a 2012-2013 season of three full productions  - including a staging of Hamlet this fall – is a testament to how far this fledgling company has come in such a short period.

Classical Theatre Company’s production of The Tempest runs through April 29, 2012, at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Dr., Houston, TX  77007. General admission is $18. Book tickets online at


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