Shakespeare in Clark Park, known for its free outdoor productions designed to create an “accessible, affordable cultural event” for the greater Philadelphia area, presents The Tempest for its eighth summer; with a straightforward yet creative design and enthusiastic cast, this inventive and ambitious production definitely meets its goal.
The set, by scenic designer Bradley K. Wrenn, appears to be constructed from the materials left over by a shipwreck—or, given that the stage floor consists mainly of the grass of Clark Park, it might actually be the shipwreck, slowly adapted by Prospero and Miranda over the years. Most of it is made out of driftwood, particularly the musician’s hutch upstage right and a small platform downstage left. A few poles hold fishing nets and lights aloft, and a large sail stretches across the back of the stage, covered in runes and mysterious figures—not just a simple backdrop, it turns out, but a source of Prospero’s and the island’s magic. The set is clearly inspired by the text, but it is realized in an exceptionally cool manner.
Natalia de la Torre’s costume design achieves a unified look without confining itself to any particular period or locale. Miranda and Caliban look like they have been clothed from whatever could be salvaged from the Milanese ship: the former wears boots mismatched with a too-short dress with no sleeves, covered by a dark green bodice; the latter mainly wears (literal) fishnets. Prospero fares slightly better, wearing a cut-off coat with a faded sunburst over a maroon dress that has been hiked up over her breeches and boots. When the Neapolitans arrive, it’s obvious that fashions have changed during Prospero’s exile: Alonso and Sebastian both wear somewhat Asian-inspired robes over split skirts and leggings, while the men wear tunics, doublets, or tabards. The sunburst is a recurring theme, perhaps marking the ruling houses of Naples and Milan, and characters are linked by colors—Prospero and Antonio both wear maroon, while Ferdinand’s teal sash matches his mother’s robes and his burnt sienna doublet matches his aunt’s skirts—giving the production a visual coherency without being overwhelming.
Given the limitations of a large and widespread audience, a low-set stage, and an enthusiastic though occasionally unreliable sound system, the production (perhaps wisely) avoids more subtle interpretations of the characters, though the cast is generally strong. Felicia Leicht gives a somewhat unusual though welcome reading of Sebastian, who shows a genuine affection for her distant niece and (believed) lost nephew Ferdinand. Combined with the seduction by Matt Tallman’s Antonio that is now more text than subtext, this fuels her discontent with her royal sister Alonso to the point of attempted regicide. Catherine Palfenier provides another unique interpretation as both Caliban and the voice of Ariel—though sadly, the production does not particularly draw out the parallels between the two roles. Palfenier is a decent Caliban, gruff and sullen; however, her vocal performance as Ariel, backed by members of the ensemble miming through the backdrop and giving her lines an unearthly echo, grounds the otherworldly visuals with a sweetly relatable enthusiasm and need for approval. Dave Johnson as Stephano and Robert Daponte as Trinculo provide the majority of the beautifully timed and executed physical and verbal comic relief, though they are ably supplemented by Hannah Gold’s extremely teenaged and moody Miranda, Akeem Davis’s charmingly boyish Ferdinand, and Justin Jain’s creaky Gonzalo. However, while Catharine K. Slusar makes for an imposing sorceress, enacting her magic with an epic bellow capable of literally stopping people in their tracks, her interactions with Prospero’s daughter or her servants seem to be missing any of the conflicted affection that lends them depth beyond the text, weakening the emotional center of the play.
By far the most impressive and enjoyable aspect of this production is Adrienne Mackey’s bold creative staging choices, some of which would be difficult to accomplish in a fully equipped theater, much less in the temporary stage in the middle of Clark Park’s bowl. Mackey expands upon the text’s mention of the island’s ambient magic and gives it more concrete manifestations, clearly separate from Prospero’s magic. Besides the mysterious music, characters often find themselves in semi-trance-like states, like Miranda and Ferdinand’s first meeting, or Gonzalo’s speech about ruling the island. Stephano and Trinculo have the distinction of their legs going into a semi-trance-like state, dancing quite independently of their own volition to the island’s music (provided by composer/music director Sean Hoots). As mentioned, Ariel has no real physical form, a particularly apt choice for a spirit of air. The rune-covered sail cloth that typically gives her form also matches Prospero’s robe and the garments of the spirits, and unsurprisingly, they are used to manifest other feats of magic as well. A particularly disturbing spirit unexpectedly appears, writhing against a drape of cloth with unnatural contortions, to guard the box of garments sent to tempt Stephano and Trinculo (which, on an unrelated note, hilariously runs towards sparkly variations on the theme of tutu). Prospero’s ‘rough magic’ soliloquy is accompanied by her pulling another huge piece of the cloth across the stage as an extension of her robe, letting it snap back at the end of her speech as a visual confirmation of her intent to relinquish her power—and revealing in the process the frozen, terrified forms of her enemies now transported before her. Prior to the show, audience members who have brought flashlights are given basic paper lanterns to afix to them and cues for their use: when Prospero releases Ariel from her service, her current Tinkerbell-esque blobs of light disappear as the backdrop collapses, only to reappear in the form of those lanterns (and a few repurposed cell phones) spreading out as a wave of light through the audience, as free as a metaphorical bird at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.
While not all of Mackey’s choices achieve their fullest potential, they succeed far more often than they fail, delivering a spectacle enjoyable to all of the broad audience. Backed by a solid cast and imaginative design aesthetic, Shakespeare in Clark Park’s production of The Tempest captures and translates not only the magic featured in the play, but the magic of the play itself.