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Amid warehouses and train tracks on NE Flagler Drive in Fort Lauderdale, the new Sol Theatre Project's neon logo lights up the dark night as if the venue were a cheery inn. The interior space is disarming. With a bookcase crammed with scripts, a largemouth bass mounted over a window, mismatched couches, and stuffed chairs, the lobby resembles a family room circa 1978. The small auditorium is equally laid-back. More stuffed chairs and sofas sit on risers before a matchbook-size stage no more than a dozen feet in depth. It's an intimate playing space that puts the actor, not the set, in focus. Clearly Sol is making a statement: The emphasis here is on community and inclusion. This company wants to please.
And it dreams great dreams. The theater has announced a season of classics, from Shakespeare to Strindberg, one of very few professional theaters in the entire state to do so. On top of this, Sol has established a resident acting ensemble that will perform together in every show. As a debut the Fort Lauderdale theater dives into Shakespeare's The Tempest. Directed by Sol's founder, Robert Hooker, this production suggests Sol's aim: challenging material combined with a welcoming charm. Judging by its first production, Sol is on the road to achieving some but not all of its ambitious goals.
The choice of The Tempest as the company's premiere production is a bold -- and risky -- move. This rarely produced play, one of Shakespeare's last and most difficult, is a challenge to any theater, let alone a brand-new one. Shakespeare not only requires many actors, it requires actors of significant resources. Even the small roles require skill with language and characterization.
The story is about Prospero, an aging magician who rules a desert isle accompanied only by daughter Miranda and several magical creatures. When Prospero conjures a huge storm to wreck a passing ship, young Miranda is distraught, prompting her father to reveal his past: He was once the Duke of Milan who was usurped by his scheming brother, Antonio, in a coup aided by the King of Naples. Set adrift in a leaky boat, Prospero and baby Miranda managed to find the island where they have lived ever since, attended by both Ariel, an "airy spirit," and Caliban, an island inhabitant whom Prospero enslaved. But the duke knows through his magic that the passing ship contains his enemies. Seeing his chance to regain his dukedom, he raises the tempest to bring them as shipwreck victims to his land. Also along is the king's son, who encounters Miranda and captures her heart, a turn of events Prospero monitors carefully. Meanwhile Caliban plots to regain the island from Prospero and meets with some lowlifes from the ship who join the scheme.
Director Hooker terms the play a "dream/ fancy/fairy tale," and he delivers a production that clearly reflects that notion. Aided by lively modern music and colorful, whimsical costumes, the sprightly cast gives energetic and often quite funny performances. Hooker's fairy-tale take has textual merit -- the play certainly shows an origin in Italian commedia dell'arte. And the rock-'em, sock-'em comic style not only is a time-honored Shakespearean tradition, it well suits the several talented clowns in the cast.
The downside to this approach is that the emphasis on colorful high jinks and wocka-wocka humor ignores part -- the significant part -- of this haunting play. The Tempest is certainly a fairy tale but of a darker, more brooding sort than Sol's production suggests. This is a play with big ideas -- revenge, forgiveness, and the transcendent power of love. It also is full of irony: Prospero broods over his usurpation yet ignores his own displacement of Caliban. Caliban frets about his enslavement to Prospero yet happily bows down to a worse fate as the vassal of a drunken sailor. Prospero puts a good spin on his reign as duke, yet his self-absorption, his bookishness, and his sudden flashes of peevishness suggest that he wasn't as effective a ruler as he recalls. This is Shakespeare's style: to render his characters -- heroes, villains, clowns, everyone -- as contradictory, multifaceted, fully human.
Hooker is working with a cast of varying levels of skill and experience. As Prospero, Jim Gibbons offers a genial charm, chuckling his way through the story line as a bemused observer. With his rugged face and graying beard, Gibbons certainly looks like a man long shipwrecked on a desert island, and his easygoing, natural delivery suits the tiny space. But this Prospero lacks the authority of a leader or the vulnerability of a man struggling with the deep anger and bitterness the text indicates. Gibbons seems ill at ease in such a dominant role. He rarely takes and holds the stage, often turning away from rather than embracing the audience. Similarly his use of magic has a general, bland quality, a power that he seems to flip on and off like a light switch, rather than a force that could be dangerous, even to him.
Stephanie Martin as Ariel, Prospero's spritely attendant, is more successful. Ariel is the classic servant type, a prankster who longs for freedom yet continually seeks approval. It's a tricky role, always in danger of being too cute, but Martin's facility with the language and her dexterous, inventive physicality make for an engaging, clear characterization. David Tarryn-Grae adds some zany energy as the drunken sailor Stephano and his tall, red-wigged buffoonery is well matched by his sidekick, the short chubby Trinculo, played with zest by Kala Kaminsky.