The Tempest. For more information call 973-408-5600.


Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey continues its productions under the stars

By ALLEN CROSSETT, Drama Critic

Singing a lively sea chantey, the entire cast starts their performance of “The Tempest” by gathering on a low platform stage after entering from not only the left and right but also down the aisles of the outdoor theater. They are carrying old wooden trunks from which they remove some props, and they then assemble these trunks into the shape of an ancient ship.
Two large white sails billow overhead, and a couple of crew members sway side to side to complete the image. We are at sea.

Storm clouds are gathering, however, and soon this ship is battered by a terrible storm, a tempest, if you will. Nymphs come down the aisles having hoisted a huge blue sheet that glides over the heads of the center section of the audience, remaining aloft as it then floats over the heads of the performers on stage.

We imagine a shipwreck. And we marvel at the energy and creativity that has defined the opening moments of this Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production. We’re at the Greek Theatre on the campus of the College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station where we are enjoying this performance “under the stars.”

But then, the doldrums.

Poetic Language

“The Tempest,” considered by most to be Shakespeare’s last complete play, is a difficult one not because the plot is particularly complex but because the language is so poetic. In selecting this title, director Joe Discher must have known that his staging would follow a tradition established over eight years of outdoor summer entertainment where the fare has been fast-paced and often hilarious shows like “The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged),” “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Scapin.”

We’re used to comedies that go well with a picnic of fried chicken and lemonade.

This “Tempest,” however, does not generate much laughter. The most fun the audience has is watching the frolic of three men—the beastly Caliban, a jester, and a drunken butler—as they swill bottle after bottle of sack and then do silly things like fall down and tumble.

In a production where most of the characters plow through their scenes like a ship fighting the wind, these three drunks provide the energy that enlivens the evening. Caliban, the “savage and deformed slave,” played by Mark Mineart, appears with stripes painted on his bald head looking like he might have escaped from a Friday Night SmackDown. He grunts, rolls on the ground, and he kisses the boots of those he considers his superiors.

Andy Paterson, whom Shakespeare Theatre regulars will remember especially for his work in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” returns for his eighth season, this time in the role of the Jester where he offers a striking contrast to Caliban. Where the beast is huge and crude, he is smaller, more fragile, and very funny.

Leading the trio is Jay Leibowitz in the role of Stephano, the drunken butler, and he is wonderful, the life preserver that saves the sinking ship. His first entrance comes with an explosion of energy, and he just doesn’t let up. He’s the one with the supply of booze, and with the hooch he assumes a position of power, of leadership. Caliban and the Jester want what he’s got, and Leibowitz’s Stephano makes the most of this.

In important ways, “The Tempest” is a play about leadership. Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, who with his daughter Miranda have been abandoned on an enchanted island, has the most power. He is especially interesting to watch because while he has learned magic, he doesn’t use it all that often.

A. Benard Cummings is quite striking in the role of Prospero where he is able to use his magnificent voice to enrich his commanding presence. The play’s young lovers are Miranda (Rachel Mewbron) and Ferdinand (Michael Ellison). The cast also includes Bill Christ as Alonso, the King of Naples, Bryan Hicks as Prospero’s brother Antonio, with John Seidman as Gonzalo, an honest old counselor.

Ariel, the airy spirit who wants his freedom, is portrayed enchantingly by Joel de la Fuente who gives us a character who is always in motion or up on his toes ready to dart. And at the very end, after Ariel slips on a robe bejeweled with radiant lights, he then blends into the starry sky behind him, and if the evening is clear, into the sparkling universe beyond. It’s a beautiful moment.

This abridged two-hour production of “The Tempest” could be tough going for those not familiar with the play. If you are planning to attend, remember please that picnicking before the show is encouraged and it might be a good idea to also bring along a blanket and low beach chair. Performances, weather-permitting, will continue through August 2. For information, visit www.shakespearenj.org.