Starting the fall theater season seeing Shakespeare is like being served a big dose of cod liver oil as an aperitif. The stuff is hard to swallow, but you know it's supposed to be good for you. You just hope that what comes after is more enjoyable.
Dallas Theater Center, for the third year running, has opened its latest season at the Wyly Theatre with a Shakespeare play. This time it's The Tempest, classified as one of the romances, but really an angry drama filled with men and monsters doing nasty things to one another. Among the Bard's cod liver plays — the ones every major theater does because they think they have to — it's the bitterest.
To make it smoother to digest, DTC's artistic director Kevin Moriarty has taken liberties with the 400-year-old script, trimming and tightening it down to a briskly paced 95 minutes (with no intermission). Things get off to a smashing start as the talky shipwreck sequence is condensed and updated into a plane crash. Seeing Alonso, king of Naples, and his men in sharp black suits and uniforms sitting in two rows of airline seats is a strong visual pow. As a storm tears the plane apart, the men rise and line up along the edge of the stage. Behind them their seats whoosh backward, sucked into a dark chasm in the floor.
In a flash, the thunder and lightning subside and designer Beowulf Boritt's scenery transforms into a bright, sun-bleached, enchanted island. There the crash survivors, scattered on various beaches, encounter the magician Prospero, his teenage daughter Miranda, the sprite Ariel and the unhappy creature Caliban. Within the action of the play, which takes place in one long afternoon, murder plots hatch, romance flowers and relationships, including some longstanding feuds, resolve in a peaceful way.
There are long speeches, as you expect with Shakespeare, but there are also comedy and music. Ariel's songs for this production were composed by Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht of New York's Broken Chord group. As sung by young Broadway star Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (the only import for this show), they make a lovely and ethereal break from torrents of words. And how strangely beautiful this Ariel looks, darting around like an albino Nijinsky. Bare-chested and ice-blond, Herdlicka wears special contact lenses that give Ariel's eyes a birdlike glint. He's a perfect fairy, flying, sliding around the edges of the island scenery with weightless grace.
The Tempest, this one anyway, rushes to pile up bewildering situations. Prospero, played with brooding majesty by DTC company member Chamblee Ferguson, has lived in exile for a dozen years with Miranda, who's supposed to be about 15 (you have to forget that here as actress Abbey Siegworth plays her with the innocence of a 40-year-old Real Housewife). When Miranda meets Prince Ferdinand (the angular, sensitive Steven Walters), she falls in love. He's the first man besides her father she's ever seen and besides, on an uninhabited island, Mr. Right Now beats waiting for Mr. Right.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on Survivor: Shakespeare Edition, the king of Naples (Matthew Tomlanovich) grieves, thinking his son Ferdinand has died in the crash. The king's brother Sebastian (Christopher Carlos) and Prospero's long-estranged sibling Antonio (J. Brent Alford) see an opportunity for building an alliance. If they can stab the king and his counselor (Jerry Russell), they can take power. But of what? Some sand dunes and scraggly trees? The plot is foiled by Ariel, who's invisible to everyone but Prospero.
Around the corner, bumbling servants Stephano (Lee Trull) and Trinculo (Cliff Miller) find a case of rum in the wreckage and, drunk as monkeys, stumble over Caliban (Joe Nemmers, in the best performance in the large ensemble). The former master of the island, Caliban, part human, part something scaly, hates Prospero for enslaving him after he put unwelcome moves on Miranda. He wants his new pals to help him kill Prospero, first by destroying his collection of books. Then they will rule the isle together.
Squatting on his haunches, his grotesque body dusted with white sand and splotched like a Dalmatian (Boritt also designed the costume and makeup looks for the show), Nemmers' Caliban is a writhing knot of pain and resentment. His first tastes of booze loosen him up and he talks about the island's mysterious effects in the play's finest bit of poetry:
Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That if then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak'd
I cried to dream again.
The Tempest twangles with colorful phrases invented by Shakespeare and still used today. "Into thin air," "strange bedfellows," "brave new world" and "shake it off" all come from this play.
Is it a parable about the crimes of colonialists venturing into the New World? Is it another of Shakespeare's dream plays about the forces of nature man tries but fails to rule? Seen through modern eyes, The Tempest also could be an indictment of politicians who plot evil against rivals when the survival of everyone around them actually depends on civilized cooperation.
Only Prospero, who gives up his conjuring power at the end of the play, understands that. After making peace with his brother, releasing Ariel and Caliban from servitude and marrying Miranda to Ferdinand, Prospero breaks his magic wand over his knee, then steps out of the scene to speak directly to the audience. He'll only be released from his own unhappiness if and when the audience applauds. For this visually stunning DTC production of The Tempest, he need not worry about that.
Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play is still rabbiting on at Kitchen Dog Theater. It's a fact-based drama about a time in the late 19th century when women's "hysteria" was treated as sexual dysfunction. Doctors thought they could release "pent-up emotion in the womb" by stimulating lady parts with quaint contraptions that made G-spots hum the happy song.
It's a skin-deep play being given a deep-tissue massage by director Jonathan Taylor and a good cast led by Martha Harms as a young mother suffering post-partum depression, and Max Hartman as her husband, a doctor using dubious treatments on male and female patients.
Trussed up in corsets and bustles (the atrociously ugly costumes are by Bruce R. Coleman), what woman wouldn't be "pent up"? Freed from constricting clothes and zapped with stimulating zip-a-dee-do-dah, the play's women experience post-orgasmic awakenings of body and spirit. But Ruhl has written two hours of foreplay that lead to one moment of sexy rapprochement between the stuffy doc and his wife as he realizes her emotions can be accessed upstairs as well as down. Like so often with the real thing, however, it takes a little too long to reach this satisfying climax.