Every summer, the Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company embarks on an epic voyage: to perform free Shakespeare in the Park productions in a variety of locations across South Jersey and the Philadelphia area. This year they present The Tempest, a fun and musical take on the play Shakespeare designed to focus on the spectacle of the theater.
The set, designed by Christopher Haig, seems well-suited to the variety of locations it might encounter during the tour. The one permanent structure, Prospero's cell, is made of reclaimed wooden ladders converted into bookshelves, hung with a (somewhat shower-esque) curtain and a brightly colored line of laundry, or possibly prayer flags. The rest of the set dressing consists of a variety of trunks, boxes, and crates which are moved and stacked as needed. Besides being very adaptable, the set's composition cleverly suggests that it has been assembled out of the wreckage of Prospero's ship.
The time period of the play's setting is deliberately ambiguous, and costume designer Jillian Rose Keys assembles elements from a variety of eras and societies. Sebastian appears to have come directly from a ride with the Neapolitan chapter of the Hell's Angels in his black sleeveless zip vest, cargo pants, and combat boots; Alonzo, meanwhile, wears black suit pants with a dark red patterned waistcoat and matching floor-length sleeveless robe. Gonzala's layered tunic and skirt, and the pale salmon turkish trousers worn by members of the ensemble, suggest a wider Mediterranean influence – one echoed by Ariel and her forest green harem pants, though her fluttering green tank top and stripes of blue body paint (similar to Caliban's painted white and black face) seem pure enchanted island. Prospero seems to have adequately preserved his pre-shipwreck wardrobe, sporting tan pants and a gold-trimmed white tunic with his island-y sandals and blue tie-dyed magic robe, but Miranda wears a blue camisole, haphazard teal wine cardigan, and pair of bloomers for pants: whatever the time period, her clothes definitely have a scavenged quality.
The cast suffers slightly from some problems with chemistry, though each individual performance is strong. The most successful grouping is the interplay between Trinculo (Arlen Hancock), Stephano (Josh Totora), and Caliban (Joshua L. Browns). Hancock's rubbery-faced mugging combines perfectly with Totora's drunken nonchalance and Browns' booze-fueled loyalty, resulting in a continual supply of deftly-handled wordplay, entertaining visual gags, and hilarious terrified shrieking.
Meanwhile, Mary Beth Shrader gives Miranda the authentic energy and occasional petulancy of a true fifteen-year-old. She disregards the stern mien and sonorous tones of her father Prospero (David Howey) to bestow carefree affection on him, and pursues Ferdinand (Ned Pryce, in full dreamboat mode) with a charming curiosity and hint of shyness.
Some of Allen Radway's direction choices are a little counterproductive: Antonio (Paul Parente) spends much of the entire last scene in a possibly magic-assisted daze, and while this accounts for his lack of textual interaction with Prospero it does not provide a satisfying resolution to their story. The opening scene has the almost opposite problem. The production begins with Prospero observing a small ship floating in a large glass bowl, then raising the titular tempest by pouring a vial of blue liquid into the water; it's an intriguing take on his magic, but sadly it is the only example of its kind. The magic in the rest of the production relies on Howey's imposing staff-waving and intimidating RP accent (though this is certainly a challenge he rises to meet).
However, for the most part Radway offers a pleasing balance between the play's drama, humor, and spectacle. The highlight of the production is the music, by sound designer and composer (and lead banjo) Josh Totora, and performed live by him and other members of the cast. The folky Appalachian-inspired sound makes the background music infectiously toe-tapping. It also provides an excellent accompaniment for Kristen Schier's powerful voice, making Ariel's songs several of production's most enjoyable moments.
The music exemplifies the kind of experience made possible by the Commonwealth Classic Theatre and companies like it: the personal, ephemeral, and fun nature of a live performance, separated from the viewers by only a few feet of grass in the middle of a community park. Their production of The Tempest seeks out new audiences and introduces them to Shakespeare shown off to his best advantage, and reminds familiar audiences of the pleasure of a well-done performance. It's certain that both groups will leave humming the tunes.