THE TEMPEST (Lantern): Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not

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J Hernandez, Frank X, and Dave Johnson in Lantern Theater Company’s production of THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare, directed by Charles McMahon. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Lantern Theater’s production of THE TEMPEST, Shakespeare’s last play, is an enjoyable, modest show, full of comedy and romance and the gentle spirit of human forgiveness. And it is that very modesty and gentleness that makes this Tempest surprising.

The play’s plot is like a fairy tale: Prospero, the Duke of Milan (the always charming Peter DeLaurier) and his daughter Miranda (the too-contemporary Ruby Wolf) were, twelve years before, set adrift in a little boat by the Duke’s usurping brother. Shipwrecked, they lived on a magical island “full of noises/Sounds and sweet airs…/Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments/Will hum about my ears; and sometime voices…”. Prospero is a wizard, with a magic wand and books of spells, aided by two creatures he keeps enslaved, a flying sprite, Ariel (the excellent Bi Jean Ngo) and monster, Caliban (J Hernandez).

When a ship carrying the royalty of Milan is wrecked, Prospero’s brother, the usurper, Alonso (John Lopes) and his handsome son Ferdinand (the suitably handsome Chris Anthony) stagger ashore, along with a couple of drunks (the hilarious Dave Johnson and even more hilarious Frank X).

One thing leads to another, as it must: Miranda and Ferdinand fall instantly in love and are married; they will become the rules of the new Milan; the old brothers are reconciled, and the slaves, Ariel and Caliban, are set free. In what is often thought to be Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater, Prospero destroys his magic book and breaks his staff, and in the play’s Epilogue asks the audience to “release me from my bands/With the help of your good hands.” And we happily applaud the actors, freeing them from their prison of the script.

Everyone is human again—even the slimy reptilian Caliban who, when offered Prospero’s hand to shake, stands erect for the first time. And it is this very humanness that distinguishes the Lantern’s production, directed by Charles McMahon. Because magic is such a temptation on stage, companies often haul out every bell and whistle they can find; Ariel is sometimes played by a gymnast or an acrobat, and the set is often wildly atmospheric and, well, magical. Not here.

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Photo by Mark Garvin.

Lance Kniskern’s set is as prosaic as can be—sheets of canvas and a couple of potted plants—while Shon Causer’s lighting design limits itself to the basic on/off, bright/dark and the occasional purple spotlight. The costumes designed by Natalia de la Torre follow suit, except for Caliban’s, usually a let-er-rip opportunity for costume and make-up, but here made no visual sense. The soundscape, another invitation to enchanting effects, is, as designed by Michael Kiley, disappointingly modest.

This down-to-earth quality describes the acting style as well; no high-falutin’ Shakespearean diction or stentorian tones; these characters sound human. Because the audience sits so close to the Lantern’s small stage, we are in intimate relation to the actors. This approach to the play grounds it in sweetness and affection, although I would have been happy to see a little more complexity, a little more magic.

Lantern Theater, 10th & Ludlow Sts. Through April 29. Tickets $15-39. Information: 215-829-0395 or lanterntheater.org

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was recently published by Methuen, and she has just finished an essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," due out in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.