The Tempest at Quintessence Theatre

“The Tempest,” written in 1611, is believed to be one of the last plays that William Shakespeare wrote alone. It takes place on a small island somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, after a storm, a tempest, shipwrecks a ship. We soon learn that the storm was created by Prospero, with his magical powers. He has been exiled with his daughter, Miranda, for many years from his Milan dukedom by his brother, Antonio, with the aid of Alonso, the King of Naples. They were among those on the ship which washed ashore.

            There are many stories to follow. Prospero seeks to be restored to his dukedom. Some want Prospero dead. There are plots to kill others. There is the budding romance between Prospero’s daughter and Ferdinand, son of Alonso.

            It’s a complex play with a complex plot. It’s not one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, comedies, or histories, but a kind of tragicomedy and director Alex Burns has assembled a fine cast to pull it off successfully, without altering the original text. And he has it done with a team of designers who are outstanding. The masks created by the Barbaric Yawp Workshop and the spectacular costumes of Jane Casanave are powerful and beautiful!  As for the cast, they are outstanding.

            Lawrence Pressman heads the group as Prospero. A distinguished actor of stage and screen, he has appeared in so many films and tv series for over 50 years,  it would take pages to list them. He is the anchor around whom we learn of the other traitorous villains he must deal with. They are angry, they are drunk, they are desperate. They are larger than life. But Pressman’s Prospero, though he possesses supernatural powers, is most natural, most real.

            Four of the characters are wearing villainous, commedia dell’arte masks and play several roles. The power of their voices and their physicality, more than makes up for our not seeing the emotion on faces in Quintessence’s very intimate theater space. We hear and see how they feel.

            I cannot say enough about the costumes. They are worth the price of admission alone. Casanave has been doing costumes for Quintessence for several years, and I can’t imagine how she will do it better than what she has done for “The Tempest.” And with actors playing multiple roles, it must be quite a task when they step off stage and quickly don another costume.

            One of the simplest series of costumes was worn by Pat Moran, playing Ariel, the airy spirit who Prospero has invested with magical powers to do his bidding. It is a joy to watch him move about the simple raised stage in the theater in the round. He provides much of the comic relief in both his movement and his expressions (he does not wear a mask). Even his many unitards (full length leotards) make us smile- they are beautifully designed.  

            There is just one suggestion I would make to theater goers. It’s a long play. If you are not familiar with the story, particularly the opening scene after the shipwreck, I strongly recommend you read a summary of the play.  It will not spoil the experience. When I was in high school and in college, if I didn’t know the basic story of Shakespeare’s play which seemed like it was written in a different language,  I read a summary.

“The Tempest” at Quintessence Theatre, 7137 Germantown Ave., Phila, PA 19119, 215-987-4450.  Thru April 2, 2023.

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