Shakespeare's "The Tempest" is ideal for an outdoors staging, because it is set on an island off the coast of Italy, where the deposed duke of Milan, Prospero, comments upon the natural abode he shares with his beautiful daughter Miranda and a couple of strange beings named Ariel and Caliban.
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company emphasizes the story's wildness with scenic designer and technical director Daniel O'Brien's rocky set. Constructed in front of the stone ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City, that caveman-evocative set provides a suitably primitive stomping ground for the monstrous Caliban. It also provides a bracing juxtaposition between the earthy scenery and the mostly aristocratic characters wandering through it.
Doing Shakespeare outdoors also means contending with the stormy uncertainty of a sultry Baltimore summer, of course, and this production of "The Tempest" definitely has had audiences thinking about the weather. During the play-opening storm scene on this production's opening night, for instance, a light rain fell on the audience and really put us in the right frame of mind.
To borrow from the title of another Shakespeare play, however, all's well that ends well. The weather gods proved merciful and the rest of that performance only had tempest references in the dialogue.
The central dynamic in "The Tempest" is the enduring love between Prospero and his daughter, Miranda. That comes across clearly in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company production directed by Lizzi Albert.
It's a lively staging that brings out the whimsical and overtly comic aspects of a play written near the end of the Bard's career, as he pondered the twists of fate that test us. For all the political intrigue that has split a noble family asunder in this play, Shakespeare makes sure that nearly all of the conflicts are fully resolved. In short, the play begins in a tempestuous way and concludes in a manner that is more pacific or, in this particular geographic case, Mediterranean.
As Prospero, Nathan Thomas has the requisite physically imposing build and white beard to play a nobleman whose statesmanship is supplemented by magical powers that include the ability to conjure up storms in Italy and evidently also in Ellicott City. Although Thomas could bring more emotional nuance to Prospero's most celebrated poetic lines, he is a sturdy presence in the role.
As Miranda, Michaela Farrell is endearingly open and naive. After all, Miranda has been raised in such isolation that she's basically only seen two men: Prospero and, to the extent that he counts as a man, the beastly Caliban.
Imagine Miranda's curiosity when the play-opening shipwreck deposits additional human beings on the island, specifically, Ferdinand (Doug Robinson), who qualifies as a real catch. Miranda does not know quite what to make of him, but she immediately knows that she is in love.
Where love appears, amorous complications follow. Among those stumbling around the island are Prospero's coldly calculating brother, Antonio (Steven Hoochuk), who stole the throne from him; Ferdinand's mother, Alonso, the Queen of Naples (Tamieka Chavis), who supported Antonio in that power squabble; Alonso's brother, Sebastian (Jason Chimonides); and also her butler, Stephano (Tyler C. Groton), and her jester, Trinculo (Brendan Edward Kennedy).
Those courtly connections are brought out through some of the performances, as these uptight civilized people try to get their bearings in such uncharted wilderness. This is very effectively highlighted by costume designer Heather C. Jackson, who outfits characters as if they were Eisenhower-era middle-class businessmen and society ladies; yes, the ladies even wear 1950s-appropriate white gloves.
Shakespeares comedy inherently is difficult to peg to a particular time and place, making the costumes and other anachronistic touches in this production seem very much in the spirit of the play. Indeed, the eclectic musical accompaniment even includes an aptly sultry recording of Peggy Lee singing "Fever."
Although the play obviously accomondates a playful interpretation, this good-natured staging tends to be silly so often that it undercuts the play's metaphysical musing and also the disturbing undercurrent embodied by the creepy Caliban.
This uneven aspect of the production is epitomized by the two performers appearing as Prospero's servants.
As the sprite Ariel, Francesca Marie Chilcote is a fast-moving delight. She flits around the set so zestfully that she seems primed to fly right out of "The Tempest" and into "Peter Pan."
If Ariel represents supernatural forces that dwell up above, Caliban is a cave-dwelling brute who is part human and part whatever. As Caliban, Stephen Lopez has a lankier build than one usually associates with this role; and he also has, at least relatively speaking, a somewhat better attitude than is usually the case. Although the actor persuasively gives the character a rough-edged vocal delivery, he does not convey the visceral disgust that Caliban feels about his lowly status.
The stormy emotions generally do not register very strongly in this "Tempest," but the happy ending will make you smile. Prospero's magic makes sure that's the case.
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's "The Tempest" runs through July 23 at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah's Lane in Ellicott City. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m. Tickets are $34- $46, $30- $39 for seniors, $16 for students ages 19- 25, and free for children 18 and under. Call 410-244-8570 or go to www.ChesapeakeShakespeare.com