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.
But the real standout of this production is Sergio Campa as Caliban, the debased slave who desperately schemes to recover his island from Prospero. Smeared in filth, his stocky body covered only by a grass skirt, his tongue writhing like a restless eel, this Caliban is a wretched creature, driven by his desires yet thwarted by a lack of good sense. To this Campa adds a feel for the tragic, poetic aspects of the role, which could have been overlooked in all the comic horseplay. Caliban is dismissed by the civilized characters as a "monster," but Shakespeare gives him a superior intellect and some of the loveliest lines in the play:
"Be not afeared. 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 I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop on me, that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again."
Like other Shakespearean outsiders -- Shylock, Othello, Malvolio -- Caliban is flawed but unfairly wronged. His very presence in the play is an unsettling reminder of the evil that men do to one another. Campa doesn't try to homogenize Caliban. This actor is willing to blast into broad comedy and then swerve suddenly into poignancy.
But the production is hampered by some annoying aspects: The use of masks and pantomime seems rather trite, the shipwreck scene that opens the play is so full of shouting and sound effects that most of the dialogue is unintelligible, and only a few actors in the cast appear to realize that effective acting relies at least as much on listening as it does on declaiming. These flaws can be excused as the minor failings of a young company, but other choices seem decidedly ill advised, notably playing the outcome in advance. One of the delicious aspects of Shakespeare is that all the plays could turn out differently; they are too full of both merriment and mayhem to be predictable. But Hooker makes the mistake of telegraphing the happy ending: Little is at risk here, little that might disturb or challenge the audience.
Another ill-advised choice is to portray the low-comic Trinculo as a cartoon Arab (or perhaps it's a cartoon East Indian -- Kaminsky's cornball accent isn't specific). With curled Arabian Nights-style slippers, a turbanlike headdress, dark swarthy makeup, and a black curly wig, this Trinculo is the equivalent of a Sambo blackface. In the aftermath of the recent terrorist crisis and racist backlash, this imposition seems in poor taste. It also undermines the text. Caliban clearly is meant to be the sole outsider. Displaced by force, mistaking the foolish drunkard as a god, Caliban is then degraded by the drunkard's alcohol. Such was the fate of many "natives" in Shakespeare's day, a hundred years into the colonization of the Americas. To toss in another "native" -- and a cartoon one at that -- sacrifices clarity and dimension for a few laughs.
Laughter and amusement are important ways to please an audience. But they are not the only ways and need not be to the exclusion of deeper, more profound pleasures. Sol's bright, sunny Tempest will charm some playgoers but will not move or challenge them. And if this new company really wants to fulfill its promise, it should strive to do all three.
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