‘The Tempest’ at Quintessence: A magical tale of revenge and forgiveness

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 3/9/23

The opening scene of "The Tempest" at Quintessence is a tribute to the power of stagecraft.

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‘The Tempest’ at Quintessence: A magical tale of revenge and forgiveness


The opening scene of "The Tempest" at Quintessence is a tribute to the power of stagecraft.

Lights flash through the darkness, winds shriek and howl. Four sailors struggle to keep their balance on a stage that seems to teeter in the surging waves. A bleak lantern gives no comfort. One sailor clutches a broken steering wheel, others scream out in terror. 

I cannot remember seeing a play where the opening scene drew applause. 

From the start, director Alex Burns and his technical team captivate, portraying the horror of being lost at sea. The author of this storm is Prospero, master of magical spells. He has been wronged. Like the vengeful God of the Bible, he wants justice.

"The Tempest" is Shakespeare's swan song, the last of his major plays in which he explores the boundaries of comedy and tragedy. It is now called a "Romance", (because nobody knows what to call it). Prospero dominates. Pervasive irony fills the stage because characters do not realize Prospero's magical spells set them in motion and determine their fate. 

Lawrence Pressman, award-winning actor on stage and screen, plays Prospero. While slow and shambling, Prospero is also perfectly erect because his regal will dominates his body. Pale robes and a long wooden staff are picturesque in their plainness, contrasting with all the thought, humor and emotion you see in Pressman's face.   

Prospero used to be king of Milan but proved more interested in books than in wielding power.  Alonzo took advantage of this inattention. He usurped the throne and cast Prospero out to sea with his infant daughter, Miranda. Prospero found refuge on an island and now creates the storm to maroon the miscreants who stole his rightful kingdom. 

Ariel is Prospero's enabler in these enchantments. Ariel is a spirit who was ensorcelled inside a tree by an evil witch. Prospero freed him, only to make Ariel his servant. Full of slithery and unpredictable movement, Pat Moran makes you feel Ariel truly is a spirit who moves about unseen as he casts his master's spells. 

"The Tempest" is both a tale of enchantment and a play rich in ideas. For sure, Prospero is a stand-in for Shakespeare. Prospero is the master artist who, with help from books, is empowered to create his world. While this interpretation is compelling, it shares time and space with other ideas Shakespeare puts on stage. 

The Quintessence production is visually striking. Jane Casanave's costumes are colorful and expressive. The faces of Prospero, Miranda (Marielle Issa) and Ferdinand (Langston Reese) are uncovered, but the Barbaric Yawp Workshop creates quirky nose masks for the others. 

They are the comically villainous characters, and their actors romp about with distinctive, pantomimic gaits and postures. Taken together, the visual aspects of the production enhance "The Tempest" as an enchantment tale while also suggesting characters have allegorical properties. 

Chief among them is Caliban, a hump-backed, fishy-tailed creature Prospero calls "monster." Shakespeare reflects on the meaning of England's New World conquests through Caliban, former master of the island but now enslaved by Prospero. Quintessence veteran Gregory Isaac conveys Caliban's righteous hatred.

Caliban conspires with Stephano (Jered McLenigan) and Trinculo (Hillary Parker) to murder Prospero and take over the island. What most Tempest characters have in common is their lust for domination. The exceptions are Miranda, Gonzalo and Ferdinand, all good-willed yet naïve when it comes to human affairs.

This power-seeking reality holds for Prospero as well. In the early play, he is not overly likable. He frees Ariel only to impose his own servitude and resents Ariel's plea to be set free. Likewise, Prospero is vengeful over his Milan deposition but unfeeling about his conquest and enslavement of Caliban. 

What sets Prospero apart is his willingness to forgive. Alonso and Antonia are welcomed back into his realm. Ariel is granted freedom. Caliban's murder plot is forgiven, (but he is still enslaved). The suggestion is that power is only justified when exercised with generosity. 

It is my guess that Shakespeare knew he was dying when he wrote "The Tempest." Prospero's epilogue address that begins, "Now my charms are all o'erthrown...." reinforces the idea that Prospero is Shakespeare. It is deeply moving and conveys an underlying sense of penitence and Last Rites.

Quintessence is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. "The Tempest" will run through Mar. 26 Tickets are available at quintessencetheatre.org.