The Tempest
December 23, 2011
The Rogue in Elizabeth Theatre, Park Bar, Reviews, Shakespeare

After playing host to outside companies and productions at its upstairs venue, the Park Bar Theater now introduces its own producing company and marks the grand opening with a classic take on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Project mastermind, entrepreneur, and venue owner Jerry Belanger also directs the inaugural production, the result of large-scale work and investment that showcases the potential of the space, although its finest achievements of mirth and wonder prove transient rather than continuous.

Now extensively remodeled, the theater represents a Detroit-style makeover of a repurposed raw space: rough walls and exposed conduits are starkly contradicted by a unique teardrop-shaped bar, hardwood floors, and comfortable graduated seating. Any doubts about the technical credentials of the theater are dispersed by sound designers Mikey Brown and Joe Kvoriak’s first cinematically glorious thunderclap and lighting designer Michael Rollo’s inundating lightning. The initial scene throws the audience into the tempest with the passengers and crew of a ship, which founders and casts its inhabitants into the brine — an ingenious set detail by designers Belanger and Rollo helps communicate the mayhem and desperation of tumult at sea that is so difficult to transport to the stage. Unbeknownst to the ship’s inhabitants, who wash up on an island apparently devoid of civilization, this storm was far from a random vagary of the weather. Rather, it was intentionally conjured by the banished duke Prospero (Pat Loos), who has raised daughter Miranda (Katie Terpstra) in seclusion on the island for more than a decade, carefully plotting revenge on his usurpers that is now coming to fruition.

Each of the island’s changing settings is marked by a feeling of completion. Without drawing undue attention to the backdrops, Belanger and Rollo’s secluded caves and desolate plains are stunning stretches of understatement; platforms are tucked into the set’s two pillars to make for some playful stage pictures. Additionally, Belanger teams with Cal Schwartz in designing meticulously detailed period costumes and fanciful expressions of the island’s magical creatures. As Prospero’s sorcery has its limits, he requires assistance from the indentured spirit Ariel (Sarah Switanowski) to enact his plan, leaving disparate passengers from the ship to believe the others are dead as well as playing Miranda into the arms of Ferdinand (Ted Neda), the king’s forlorn son and a worthy suitor, in which Loos quietly revels in a father’s well-intentioned deceit.

With a sizable cast packed with Southeast Michigan mainstays, it’s no surprise that the production has a number of exceptional highlights. In particular, the pitch-perfect team of clowns dazzles: the king’s jester (Chris Korte), the ship cook (Mikey Brown), and a monstrously uncivilized native (Mike McGettigan) are followed by a great silly playfulness as they treat the island like their own personal pub crawl. McGettigan’s subhuman Caliban remains lightly humorous even when his eyes go half-psychotic with the angst of the oppressed, carelessly inebriated acrobatics are the linchpin of Korte’s rubber-limbed performance, and Brown offsets the energetic pair with perfectly timed apathy that gains twice the laughs with a fraction of the exertion; moreover, the teamwork is impeccable. Switanowski’s physicality as Ariel is feather light, but she also gives the character rough-and-tumble defiance that befits a creature of her skills. Some of her finest scene work is in tandem with other spirits, in a dreamy banquet that turns genuinely nightmarish thanks to exquisite movement coaching by choreographer Jill Dion. These relationships and characters represent some of the greatest material in the play, the script’s delectable low-hanging fruit, yet the work here reflects painstaking care and insight that elevate them to the sublime.

Yet there are many more scenarios than these, and not all show similar finesse in this telling. In general, the less exciting and delightful the scene, the less attention it seems to have received from Belanger and company, and the viewer’s enjoyment bottoms out accordingly. The political morass of Prospero’s revenge against his usurpers plays bone-dry, although villains Brian Daniel Thibault and Dax Anderson liven up a woeful royal trek somewhat by cunningly conspiring to seize power and make it look like an accident. The very lowest points have the ponderous sense of taking turns speaking, a hitch in the flow until another fun part comes along.

The cumulative result is a peak-and-valley Tempest, catapulting between stretches of laudable, like-new storytelling and briefer hiccups of lackluster filler; importantly, the balance tips in favor of the highs. Although the production is unable to sustain its greatest achievements, in aggregate, the show does credit to the popular Shakespeare comedy, particularly excelling when it lets loose with carefree mischievousness and fun.

The Tempest is no longer playing.
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