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Theater Review: “The Tempest” at Olney Theatre

Shakespeare’s late comedy comes to life in this energetic production.

Ian LeValley (center) as Alonso, King of Naples, and his men in The Tempest at Olney Theatre. Photograph by Stan Barouh.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s summer Free For All became an indoor event years ago, so if you have a yen for the Bard al fresco, head up Georgia Avenue to Olney Theatre Center, where they’re doing a bang-up job with The Tempest through August 3.

Shakespeare under the stars—or, at Olney’s opening night on July 19, under clouds and scattered raindrops—has a certain something that doth heighten the drama or the comedy. That’s not merely because the actors must speak louder, even when miked (it’s live outdoor theater, so the mikes and speakers can and do sometimes cut out)—it’s just the open-air expansiveness and fun of it all. 

The Olney production, directed by Jason King Jones, sparkles with antic energy, and while it breaks no new ground interpreting Shakespeare’s valedictory (1611) comedy, it affords plenty of space for the gorgeous poetic musings of the exiled magician Prospero (an authoritative Craig Wallace), who declares in Act IV that “Our revels now are ended,” and that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on/and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” He (and Shakespeare) looks back at his life on this enchanted island and uses his magical powers (i.e., creativity) to bring resolution to it all.

Olney Theatre Center’s touring company of young professional actors, the National Players, is entering its 66th season. The cast of this production comprises veterans of long-ago National Players tours, as well as actors from the most recent one. All the generations gathered for The Tempest on Olney’s Root Family Stage do fine work. Director Jones keeps them all pretty much on the same page stylistically, which is crucial.

Scenic designer Charlie Calvert’s backdrop of white umbrellas, opened, with handles pointed toward the audience, looks simple but has visual pop and echoes the play’s opening storm. Low-tech effects include cables strung across the stage to send other umbrellas floating skyward, or on which to hang sea-blue bolts of cloth as ocean waves in the magical tempest Prospero stirs up to shipwreck his enemies on his island. Late in the play, a trio of giant puppets appear as mythical spirits. 

Prospero, as he explains to his daughter Miranda (Leah Filley), was once the duke of Milan. When she was an infant, he was deposed by his jealous brother Antonio (Paul Morella), who conspired with Prospero’s nemesis, Alonso, King of Naples (Ian LeValley). Prospero and Miranda survived the overthrow, unbeknownst to their enemies, with the help of a wise elder, Gonzalo (Alan Wade). Safe on the island, Prospero practiced his magic with the help of his books and a sprite, Ariel (Julie-Ann Elliott, in a silver dress lined with fairy lights) to do his bidding. The only other inhabitant is a human-monster hybrid, Caliban (Ryan Mitchell, all in green, his face mud-caked), the son of a witch. Prospero keeps Caliban in shackles, as he once tried to interfere lustfully with Miranda. 

In many contemporary productions of The Tempest, Caliban becomes a metaphor for British colonial exploitation or slavery. This staging leaves that interpretation alone, and Mitchell plays the role more for laughs than anything deeper—one reason Olney can recommend the show for ages eight and older. 

Wallace, his hair white and his voice resonant, digs into Prospero’s anger at his enemies. Near the end, when Prospero decides to abjure his magic and forgive them (like another late play, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest is all about forgiveness and redemption), Wallace shows clearly what it costs Prospero to do the right thing. 

Low comedy in Shakespeare can be a tedious enterprise if the perpetrators try too hard. The buffoons in this staging have a pretty light touch with the play’s extended and surprisingly funny drunk scene: A butler from the ship, Stephano (Dan Van Why), and the jester Trinculo (Jacob Mundell) get roaring drunk with Caliban. Actor Adam Turck, in a couple of smaller roles, has an assured presence and the ability to round out a character with few or no words.

Part of Prospero’s grand plan is to create a love match between his daughter Miranda and Ferdinand (Alexander Korman), son of the King of Naples. He is positive the two will fall instantly in love (they do), but he lets father and son, stranded separately, each think the other is dead for a good while before he reunites them at the end. 

So loose ends loop themselves into bows, and ill feelings (mostly) melt away as Prospero begs the audience to release him from his trials with their goodwill: “As you from crimes would pardoned be/Let your indulgence set me free.” 

This Tempest isn’t free—for those older than ten, anyway—but it is a bargain and a treat.

The Tempest is at Olney Theatre through August 3. Running time is about two hours, 40 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($20; free for children ten and under) are available online