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Wherefore: Shakespeare in Raleigh continued in force this past Friday at NC State Center Stage when the university hosted the critically acclaimed New York-based company Aquila Theatre. Unfortunately for last minute patrons, the production’s only performance in Raleigh had been sold out for more than a month. Those who missed it will have to wait until March 19 for the next Wherefore series installment, Bare Theatre’s Measure for Measure. In its first visit to the NC State stage since 2011, Aquila has rebooted Shakespeare’s fantastical comedy with a one-of-a-kind approach.
Director Desiree Sanchez (also artistic director for Aquila) boasts a reputable dance background, and it showed. This adaptation of The Tempest demanded great physical focus from actors with picturesque choreography and freeze-frames of excruciating duration (particularly on the part of Ariel – played by Carys Lewis). Lewis often looked on entire scenes as Ariel in statue form, serving witness to the unfolding plot. Indeed most of the company remained on stage for the entirety of the performance. Costume changes for actors cast in multiple roles happened upstage in slow motion. Because these actors changed costumes in slow, neutral movement, they were well established as being out of the action currently taking place downstage. The play was sprinkled with group choreography, fluid and contemporary, while each character found his and her own distinct physicality. Tara Crabbe prescribed Miranda with delicacy and innocence while James Lavender played a very gentle, paternal Prospero. The stillness of Crabbe and Lavender contrasted nicely with the dynamic physicality of the actors playing islanders and shipwrecked sailors. Joseph Cappellazzi was dynamically physical as the primitive island native Caliban, while his embodiment of the lost prince Ferdinand more closely mirrored the naturalism of Miranda and Prospero. Michael Ring was lightweight and foppish as Stephano, and his clowning abilities also appeared in his comedic approach to the conniving Antonio. Rupert Baldwin groveled well as Trinculo and, even with a regal stature, remained sympathetic as King Alonso.
Although the physicality of the performance lent a unique perspective to Shakespeare’s text, the delivery of the speech was overall underwhelming. Lovers of Shakespeare may have found new meanings in Prospero’s straightforward exposition of his plight on the island, and actors in the audience may have appreciated subtle and internalized characterizations, but general audiences may have missed the intensity with which Ariel is to strike fear in the hearts of treacherous men, or the mischief with which she manipulates the plot at Prospero’s bidding. There was no tension in Antonio’s bloodlust, first against his own brother and then against his king. Prospero did not reach awe-inspiring levels of power and mercy as the demigod of his banishment as he conquered his persecutors and in the same breath released them in forgiveness. The strongest and most dynamic relationships lay with Caliban and the clowns. The comedy that ensued between Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo infused the plot with life and necessary energy to forward the action.
The true star of Aquila’s The Tempest was the design. The emphasis on movement and aesthetic was strikingly executed by a cohesive production team. Ralph Ferris set the mood for enchantment and the supernatural with his ethereal musical compositions. Lewis and Crabbe shone with beautiful, haunting vocalizations and harmonies of Ferris’ creation. Peter Meineck’s lighting design effortlessly transported the scene to the island’s realm of magic with expert use of color and shadow play. Meineck’s design married beautifully with the versatile costumes design by Deanna Berg MacLean. In brief moments, Meineck’s lights on MacLean’s costumes and makeup seemed to change living characters to stone; the effect was breathtaking.
For audiences wanting awe-inspiring blockbuster delivery of Shakespearean dialogue, this show does not fit the bill. Characterization was subtle, with an approach heavy in physical development. Music lovers may appreciate the original compositions of a Julliard graduate, dancers may appreciate the choreography of a Metropolitan Opera Ballet alumna, and visual artists may find the design elements worthy of a gallery. There is something to love about Aquila Theatre’s The Tempest for patrons of any form of art, and in an educational setting like NC State University, the company succeeds in their mission to “bring the greatest works to the greatest number.”