Tamara Tunie as Prospero in The Tempest.
For any theatrical director, making a centuries-old play feel new again presents a sure challenge, and, nine times out of ten, Shakespeare is the canvas they choose to play upon. How many times have people tried to turn the bard’s words into something with which new generations could connect? How many times has such an attempt come off as corny at worst and disingenuous at best? (For example, when I performed in my late-1990s high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
, the drama teacher decided to make it “edgy” by turning the fairies into skater kids, with Oberon and Titania as their mall goth king and queen).
Imagine my pleasant surprise when Pittsburgh Public Theater artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski transformed The Tempest
into something new, thrilling, and inventive. And it’s not just because she gender-swapped the whole affair, giving the production a queer vibe when Miranda (Kerry Warren) and Ferdinand (Rad Pereira) fall in love.
In it, a dying breast cancer patient (Tamara Tunie, best known for her work on the long-running show Law & Order: SVU
) escapes to a magical world where, instead of wasting away in a hospital bed, she wields enormous power as the exiled Prospero, adding a layer of heartbreaking escapism. There’s the rotating, multi-level set design, accented by projections that provide a sense of depth. There are special effects that are actually
special, including cracks of lightning perfectly timed to the thrusting of Prospero’s staff, and a terrifying giant puppet that elicited audible gasps from the audience (myself included).
There are musical numbers, including one by Ferdinand that sounds straight out of an early Decemberists album, and an absurdly funny girl group ditty performed by Prospero’s loyal nymph, Ariel (the graceful, impish Janelle Velasquez), and her companions (Julia de Avilez Rocha and Emma Mercier).
(Left to right) Shammen McCune as Caliban, Bethany Caputo as Stephano, and Jamie Agnello as Trinculo in The Tempest.
Kaminski clearly knows how to cast the heck out of a show, as demonstrated by the array of talent. First and foremost, there’s Tunie, one of the few actresses who, with her commanding voice and dignified air, truly sells being a sorceress. She captivates with every movement and swirl of her giant, fur-lined cape. While everyone added to the production, there are a few that stood out, including Shammen McCune, who plays the jaded, monstrous Caliban with both humor and menace.
Especially delightful are Bethany Caputo and Jamie Agnello, who play Stephano the drunk (Caputo) and Trinculo the clown (Agnello) with big, expertly executed, vaudevillian-style physical comedy. Also noteworthy are the shipwrecked Queen Alonso (Deena Aziz), Prospero’s deceptive sister Tonio (Rami Margron), Alonso’s sister Sebastian (Aryana Sedarati), and advisor Gonzalo (Laurie Klatscher), who play off each other brilliantly in every scene they’re featured.
I should add my appreciation of the risks the players took scaling the stair-like backdrop – designed to resemble a rocky shoreline – like mountain goats, as I sat fearing one of them would take a tumble at any moment.
While I do have a few issues with the show, primarily the intro, which took me out of the action with Pittsburgh-centric jokes and sound effects that momentarily drowned out the dialogue, they remain trivial compared to what amounts to a truly spectacular production elevated by exceptional performers and bold choices.
continues through Feb. 24. 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. $30-80. ppt.org