A Dark and Stormy Tempest (Theater Review)

You know what you need to be doing this coming weekend?

Seeing The Tempest at The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville.

Let me be honest about two things. 1) I love Shakespeare. I really do.  I’m not an expert or even a qualified nerd, but if you put good Shakespeare within reach of me, I’ll go.

2) That said, The Tempest has never been my favorite. I’d seen it live oh, three or four times before this. And while I’d learned to laugh at the fool who gets all tangled up with the weird savage under the blanket, and to wait with delight for “Oh brave new world, to have such people in it!” from the mouth of Miranda, The Tempest never drew me in.

Till now.

Credit: The Warehouse Theatre/Cox Photography
Credit: The Warehouse Theatre/Cox Photography

See, our world is full of technology and wizardry, and we’ve begun to believe that some stories just can’t be told without the power of CGI or at least a big budget Broadway experience.  Shakespeare’s Tempest brings fairies and visions and a magician who doesn’t quite fit our concept of wizard or charlatan. There are foreign kingdoms, people with two or three names, and other difficulties common to the Bard.  But really, when it came down to it, I always got bored somewhere in the middle.

Till now.

Richard Willis as Propsero at the Warehouse Theatre production of The Tempest
Richard Willis as Propsero at the Warehouse Theatre production of The Tempest

As soon as Richard Willis (who plays Propsero & Caliban) opened his mouth on stage and golden, gorgeous words began flowing out (slightly tinged with the sound of a native speaker of the Queen’s English) …. as I saw him begin to stir emotions that run deep and thick inside the heart of Prospero, a father shipwrecked on an island for twelve long years and left to marinate in his own lust for revenge …. I knew this would be a performance to remember.

The director, Robert Richmond (formerly of the Aquila Theater Company and now with the Folger Shakespeare Library) brings to life an incredibly rich telling of this story that in the hands of lesser directors loses its heart in the feeble attempt to make us laugh at the fantasy.

We should know better —  Shakespeare gives us a feast in his best plays, but so many productions insist on gazing only at the sauces.

Richmond’s innovation for this performance is a risky one. Considering the madness and mental anguish that would descend on you or me if we were suddenly exiled from home through betrayal and then stranded “forever” – cut off from all human kindness  and left to raise a child – Richmond chooses to make the savage slave Caliban an alternate personality of Prospero, a Jekyll-Hyde combination that darkens Prospero into a man who can’t hide from the bad parts of his nature.  Likewise, Miranda engulfs inside herself the sprite Ariel.

Perhaps Caliban and Ariel really did exist, and Prospero enchanted them into himself and Miranda through dark magic.

Or perhaps the ragged edges of their sanity tore loose years before anyone else would land on the island to save them. Either way, it’s a much more convincing use of the fantastical.

While the play rolls through a tightly edited (and nimble) telling of the plot twists that result in reconciliation and true love, it is the masterful acting of Willis that grounds this show.  The moment of the “turn” – when Prospero decides that love is a greater power than revenge – set off a powerful wave of choices and emotions to round out the story.

It was an ending packed with a stinger … I was all ready to bounce up with smiles at the curtain call but instead the touching final moments kicked me in the stomach and I had to blink back tears instead. I couldn’t say anything for several moments.  I had to feel my way through the ending before I could process it.

That was Saturday, and I’m *still* thinking about the story, the fulness of its meaning, the depth of Shakespeare’s insight into human nature, the incredible beauty of an actor at his peak and in his element.

For the love of all that is Story, PLEASE buy a ticket RIGHT NOW and see this production.  It’s worth twice what you will pay for it.

Warehouse Theatre offers a dark-hued ‘Tempest’ | The Greenville News | greenvilleonline.com.

This photo was posted to Richard’s Facebook page….. apparently he fell during rehearsal and gashed his arm. The solution was to work his bandage into the costume. I spent most of two hours admiring that rugged detail — a tattered and frayed metaphor for Prospero’s sanity.  Ha! Nope. Just an artistic band aid. 🙂

Richard Willis
Richard Willis

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