Review: In ‘The Tempest,’ every man for herself

There’s plenty of magic afoot on the far-out island where the sorcerer Prospero stirs up “The Tempest” that is the title of William Shakespeare’s play about usurpers, vengeance and forgiveness.

There’s also a fairly complex plot told largely through narration, not action.

That’s a lot to handle right there. So when the folks at Shakespeare in Clark Park, who offer an admission-free play each summer in that West Philadelphia oasis of green, make “The Tempest” even harder to parse they take a big risk. Bits and pieces of Adrienne Mackey’s production work – they are nicely staged scenes that clearly deliver this story of a stormy shipwreck that brings all the people who once wronged Prospero to face him once more. But some of the production’s conceits make this “Tempest” harder to withstand.

The sweep of land where Shakespeare in Clark Park plays is a wonderful setting for watching a show and a much less ideal one for hearing it. It’s close to the playground area where children yell and squeal with delight and do all the things children should absolutely be doing at a park; until twilight wanes to darkness, the Bard and the playground see-saw for your attention, despite the remarkably good sound system the theater company sets up for the performance.

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That problem may not be solvable, but it does mean one thing: When you tell a story at Clark Park you need to be as clear as possible. Putting a character far to one side of the field or inside the audience, without using any lighting to guide us to that place, is a deal-killer. (Both happen here.) Using the only slightly distorted voice of a character who plays a second character in a similar voice is confusing. (That happens here.) And keeping the male names of players but changing their roles to “mother” instead of “father” and casting them as women is, well, you know.

Despite all of this, the players – whatever the confusion between their names, genders and roles – are solid, from Catharine K. Slusar (as Prospero) and Hannah Gold as her daughter, to Catherine Palfenier as the deformed slave Caliban and the voice of Ariel the sprite, plus the cast of wrecked sailors. These include Felicia Leicht as a usurping brother — er, here, sister but still named Sebastian – and Jessica Dalcanton as Alonso, the king of Naples. Oh, nuts, I mean Alonso the queen of Naples. The little songs in “The Tempest,” for which Shakespeare writes the lyrics, are composed for the production by Sean Hoots, of the local group Hoots & Hellmouth. Hoots provides live accompaniment.

In Shakespeare’s days, men played all the roles, male or female, and there’s a movement today among artistic directors to gender-swap characters. This has been done to artful perfection by Philadelphia’s Mauckingbird company, devoted to mining a gay vein in its productions; in two of the company’s Shakespeare pieces, love is clearly all you need and gender be damned. At an international meeting of Shakespeare artistic directors at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival this winter, a group of actors and directors held an intense workshop during which they attempted to switch genders in their minds during a number of exercises that related to Shakespeare stage work.

That’s all fine – but the namby-pamby gender swapping in this version of “The Tempest” seems to have no reason (other than hiring actors of opposite gender) and certainly no rhyme. Sebastian here is supposed to be a woman – she is called “sister” in the program booklet’s description but somebody forgot to remind director Mackey of that. At one point Prospero sticks to the script and tells his newly gendered sister, Sebastian: “For you, whom to call brother would even infect my mouth.”

Um… huh? Out there in the open air, with other distractions, adding confusion is unforgivable. What would William Shakespeare say? Would she be amused? And how about King Elizabeth? How would he react?_

“The Tempest,” presented by Shakespeare in Clark Park, runs at Clark Park, 43d Street and Baltimore Avenue, through July 28.


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