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Gambit Weekly Sensational Shakespeare

By Dalt Wonk

July 14, 1997:  It's got a bitter, exiled former duke with magical powers; a trio of scheming, power-hungry politicos; tension-breaking comedy by a drunken butler, a wise old councilor; a shipwreck; a pair of star-crossed lovers; a bit of sword play; and lots of strange and mysterious happenings. Apart from its marked lack of explosions and car chases, it could be the summer's next big Hollywood blockbuster. Except it was written in 1611.

It is The Tempest, this season's offering from the Tulane Summer Shakespeare Festival. For those who think the Bard is just for the cognoscenti of the classical stage, this lively, fast-paced, excellently cast and well-staged production will prove even the most jaded skeptic wrong. Director Aimée K. Michel has assembled a cast of established actors and newcomers led by Robert Pavlovich. Here he portrays King Alonso of Naples, leader of the trio of noblemen who have wrested from Prospero, the Duke of Milan, his title and dukedom, sending him to exile on a barren island in the Mediterranean. Joining in the scheme is Prospero's brother Antonio, a brutish cad played with aplomb by Jerry Lee Leighton. Even more despicable is the king's brother Sebastian, portrayed equally well by J.P. De La Houssaye. The only moderate and wise voice in their midst is Gonzalo, "the honest old councilor" as he is billed, played with grace and dignity by Daryl Harris. Rounding out this quintet of stranded nobility is Adrian, a minor lord portrayed by Lance Spellerberg.

Accomplished actor and Tulane faculty member Ron Gural positively radiates as Prospero, the wronged duke out to avenge his exile. Through magical powers gleaned from the books in a vast library exiled with him, Prospero conjures the "tempest" that causes those who plotted against him to be shipwrecked on the very island of his exile. Aided by the "airy spirit" Ariel, played in spectacular fashion by another local favorite, Lara Grice, Prospero anticipates with undisguised glee the revenge he has long plotted.

Unbeknownst to his anguished father, Ferdinand, King Alonso's son, swam to safety on the island from the shipwreck and is promptly smitten by Prospero's lovely daughter Miranda. This winsome pair is prettily played by newcomers Michael Downing and Lisa Childers, both Tulane theater majors. The purity and innocence of their love contrasts markedly with the anguish of the king's party and Prospero's revenge-inspired plot to avenge his exile and regain his dukedom.

Enter another trio, likewise with schemes aplenty. The savage "monster" Caliban, an island denizen enslaved by Prospero, convinces the drunken shipwrecked butler, Stephano, and jester, Trinculo, to help him rid himself of his bondage to Prospero, after which Stephano could assume the position as ruler of the island. As Trinculo observed in the agony of his shipwreck and initial encounter with Caliban, "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."

Three more strong performances are delivered by Danny Bowen as Caliban, Gavin Mahlie as Trinculo, and Mark McLaughlin as Stephano, each also familiar to local theatergoers. Their characters' bumbling attempts to unseat Prospero provide much comic relief, with a particularly effective performance by Bowen as the deformed slave, a difficult role and a characterization he skillfully maintains throughout the performance.

Behind the scenes is a powerful ensemble of extraordinary talent. An abstract set designed by Elizabeth Chaney serves multiple purposes, from the opening ship caught in the tempest to various locales around the island. Elegantly sweeping through the house at Tulane's Lupin Theatre is a graceful ramp, which at first caused me a degree of misgiving as I recalled the gangplank in last year's Macbeth, which reverberated loudly when performers trod upon it during exits and entrances. But The Tempest set was well-executed and used effectively.

Hugh Lester, a Tulane theater faculty veteran, designed the impressive lighting scheme, and original music composed by Brendan Connelly and performed live punctuated many scenes effectively. Likewise, the costuming by Kaye Voyce must be acknowledged. The ostentatious garb of the shipwrecked nobility contrasted with the earthy sensuousness of the island spirits, the simplicity of Prospero's suit and the wispy innocence of Ferdinand and Miranda's clothes.

It's sometimes embarrassing to gush so enthusiastically about a play, but I can't find anything in this production of the Bard's last work (he died five years after he wrote it) to complain about. It is an exuberant show that proves again that Shakespeare's works remain relevant.

Don't miss it.

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