All across America this summer, theater troupes are performing Shakespeare’s plays al fresco, from Frisco to Central Park, from Westerly to Pawtucket. Unfortunately for Mixed Magic Theatre, the urban park in which they are currently presenting The Tempest (through August 3) — Veterans’ Memorial Amphitheater — has very little of the sound-blocking foliage of many such arenas. It’s on a busy corner, with motorcycles, fire engines, and high-revving cars passing by.
It’s to the credit of the cast of The Tempest, however, that many of the actors are so engaging that I didn’t even notice the city noises until the momentary silence of a scene change. And even that doesn’t happen very often, for director Jonathan T.M. Pitts-Wiley has kept his crew on a steady pace — through lighting difficulties, audience shiftings, and any unexpected interruptions from the task at hand — to give us those wonderful lines that Shakespeare penned at the end of his career, when he called this play a “comedy.”
Yes, there are some funny moments, particularly in the long sequence between the primitive island man Caliban and two drunken sailors from the ship that has foundered offshore. But, in Pitts-Wiley’s interpretation, we also see more clearly the enslavement of both Caliban and the spirit Ariel to the sorcerer Prospero as a commentary on the colonialism that was just beginning in England and would spread throughout the globe.
We also wonder about Prospero’s former behavior, as the Duke of Milan, before his banishment, with daughter Miranda, to this far-off isle. His dastardly brother Antonio, in league with the King of Naples, Alonso, is blamed for that exile, which has lasted 12 years, but in Prospero’s harsh and double-dealings with Caliban and Ariel, we question his part in those events. In these days of political deception on every front, we also wonder about even his benign manipulations, i.e. calling up a tempest to wreck the ship on which he has divined that his old enemies are sailing — though not intending to have them drown — and bringing his daughter together with Ferdinand, the son of Alonso.
Matt Fraza as Prospero and Nicole Conlon as Miranda lead off The Tempest with an explication of that long-ago plot, and their strong characterizations draw us into the familiar story. But it is the enslaved beings, with Cedric Lilly as Caliban and Sarah Pierce as Ariel, who all but steal the show. Each time they appear, they are so captivating, so much inside their roles, that we can’t take our eyes off them. Ariel’s music, through Pierce’s voice and flute-playing, are as enchanting as her sprightly manner— she seems to fly whenever she exits the stage.
Lilly, for his part, has the even more demanding role of showing us Caliban’s baser nature — when he’s accused of attempted rape of Miranda, he admits he would have populated the island with little Calibans — and also the source of his anger at Prospero — that the island had basically belonged to him after the death of his exiled mother Sycorax, that he had taught the outcasts Prospero and Miranda where to find water, food, and refuge on the isle, and he had then been locked into a cave and forced to do Prospero’s bidding. This is a complicated characterization, and Lilly pulls it off with a grounded understanding of Caliban and also with well-modulated diction, gesture, and tone.
Other standouts are Rudy Cabrera as the passionate-to-the-hilt-of-his-sword Ferdinand, Yosa Yon as the meandering, drunken Stephano, and her/his blathering sidekick Carlos Campbell as Trinculo. Director Pitts-Wiley has proven once again that gender-blind, culturally-blind casting is no impediment to a performance — though it’s up to the individual actors to make it work.