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Shakespeare has remained vital and relevant for 500 years because every time we experience one of his plays, we see something new. It may come from something as small as a slightly different inflection an actor gives a line. Suddenly we see something we thought we knew in an entirely unique way.
In the case of Pioneer Theatre Company's current production of "The Tempest," the insights come from the strikingly imaginative vision of director Charles Morey. This is a very different "Tempest" from anything you've seen before, but the guiding principle has such integrity that it never seems gimmicky. Its world is so interesting that even an occasional thing that seems jarring becomes intriguing rather than irritating.
Why does Prospero's magic threaten to overwhelm him at one point, for instance? We're not sure until we read Morey's director's notes, but the effect is so dramatic, so much a part of this "brave new world," that it works anyway.
This production teems with theatrical moments, starting with the opening sequence. On a bare stage, Prospero gestures and everything happens: Lights come up, the backdrop comes down and giant windmill blades drop from the ceiling. Ariel comes to life, climbs to a platform, and pedals a bicycle to create the wind for the storm. It is part spectacle, part circus, altogether magical.
But perhaps the most insightful moment occurs late in Act II. Prospero (Craig Wroe) has been sending Ariel (Julia Motyka) to torment various adversaries around the island, and when she returns, she comments that their plight would stir his deepest sympathies. Attentively, Prospero answers, "Dost think so, spirit?" "Mine would, sir, were I human," she replies. Wroe takes a very long pause, then says with conviction, "And mine shall. ... The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance." This is the very instant when he makes the choice to forgive them, and we become part of it.
The acting performances meld into a seamless part of Morey's vision. Wroe is a younger, more robust Prospero than usual and nicely balances the character's philosophical side with his power. Emily Trask's feisty, totally spontaneous Miranda and Andy Rindlisbach's earnest, eager-to-please Ferdinand are a delightful departure from the pasteboard portrayals these characters often receive.
Although she is quite tall, Motyka is very graceful and spritely as Ariel, though her movementssometimes suggesting a puppet, sometimes a bird are a bit confusing.
Paul Kiernan's savvy comic timing makes Caliban less sinister and more of a buffoon, frustrated by his inability to make anything go his way.
John Plumpis' inept Trinculo and Jeff Brooks' drunken Stephano lurch through their scenes like a misplaced vaudeville team.
The comic scenes are highlights of this production. Noble Shropshire's kindly Gonzalo, David McCann's penitent Alonso, John Leonard Thompson's treacherous Antonio, and Kurt Zischke's duplicitous Sebastian provide strong support.
Gary English's futuristic, multilevel set, Mary Louise Geiger's constantly shifting and changing lighting and Susan Branch Towne's eclectic costumes create a timeless, magical world.
As Prospero asks for the audience to "set him free" at the play's end, it becomes clear why Morey wanted to direct this play in his final season at Pioneer. Like Prospero, he is a man in transition: saying goodbye to a meaningful past but looking forward with hope and optimism to a new beginning.
P Charles Morey's inspired direction transforms "The Tempest" into a magical theatrical experience.
When • Reviewed Friday, Oct. 21; continues nightly (except Sundays) through Nov. 5
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $25-$49; at 801-581-6961
Running time • Two hours, 30 minutes, with one intermission