You’ll rarely – maybe never – see a production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” as earthbound as Lantern Theater’s. Set on a near-deserted island where the patriarch, Prospero, has the powers of magic, the play has a distinct fantastical atmosphere. If you’ve ever seen Prospero’s invisible sprite Ariel played by a shaft of light and an off-stage voice, and thought it was a good idea (it was!), you get the picture.
And the picture at Lantern is sharp and closely cropped, with no stage mist rising amid the images. Somewhere off in the distance, we hear dim sounds and distant notes from composer Michael Kiley, and director Charles McMahon breaks with modern editing custom and uses extended versions of Shakespeare’s songs in the text, set to Kiley’s strange tunes. Ariel herself, portrayed by Bi Jean Ngo, sings many of them, mostly on key.
It’s the talented Ngo who shows how a “Tempest” can work without the razzmatazz multi-media commonly available to stage productions. Ngo inhabits Ariel – or is it the other way around? – with flickers of her heavily made-up eyes, a crouch or a jump, and little animal-like bulges around her mouth that give new definition to tongue-in-cheek. She can use her voice gently and she can raise the roof, depending on which characters she’s trying to prod or confuse. She’s her own special-effects machine.
She sold me on the Lantern’s version which, for the record, has its peaks and dips. The play has a complicated set-up that begins with a tremendous storm – the tempest of the title – and a boatful of terrified crew and nobles. (That’s a dip; the storm is small-time here, except for the yelling which messes up the text.) We learn that these unfortunate sailors are the family of Prospero, once the duke of Milan, pronounced MILL-en throughout this production, which is proper Old English yet irritatingly affected.
Prospero (the commanding Peter DeLaurier) has worked his magic, with Ariel, to conjure the storm and bring everyone to the island unscathed so that he can settle a big family dispute from years ago. At that time, his brother Antonio, aided by the King of Naples (John Lopes) put Prospero and his little daughter Miranda (Ruby Wolf) to sea in a dinghy and usurped Prospero’s dukedom in Millen – beg pardon, Milan. The visitors nearly triple the island’s population: Its only inhabitants are Prospero, Miranda, Ariel and a slithery half-man and half-monster named Caliban (well-done by J Hernandez).
Among the stranded visitors are two drunks (Frank X and Dave Johnson, whose boisterous scenes are good fun) and most important, the son of the King of Naples, Ferdinand (Chris Anthony). He’s a matinee-idol type of guy who’s smitten with desire once he sees Miranda. She’s never seen a guy her age before, so the sight of him sets her hormones on overdrive. One of the Lantern production’s high points comes from watching Anthony’s Ferdinand entreat Wolf’s Miranda – the Bard’s language is beautiful and so is the rich longing from the actors.
Truth to tell, I missed the theatrical bewitchment I’ve seen in other productions, even though this one, on Lance Kniskern’s workable multi-level set of steps, posts, scrims and scant greenery admirably uses the text as its driver. In fact, something comes through at Lantern that I never noticed in any other “Tempest,” whose major theme is about forgiveness in spite of a terrible wrong. This production makes it clear that families split by feuds can be made whole again by the next generation that has little reason to care about who said what or did whatever long ago. In “The Tempest,” it’s the children of the feuders — Ferdinand and Miranda — who force the issue of reconciliation. There’s a chance you’ve heard or even been part of family stories much like that.
“The Tempest,” produced by Lantern Theater Company, has been extended through April 29 at St. Stephen’s Theater, to the rear of St. Stephen’s Church, at 10th Street between Market and Chestnut Streets. 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.