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These days it seems few companies are willing to produce a Shakespearean play without changing the Bard’s work in some vital way. We’ve seen productions that cut or shift text, change the sex of characters, and move the setting to different times and places. So when a group like the Fort Greene-based Kings County Shakespeare Company creates a solid, traditional version of a Shakespearean work, it almost appears as an innovative, even a courageous act.

Except for a few women in male roles, "The Tempest," now at Founder’s Hall at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights is certainly a production Elizabeth I would recognize. In fact, at the June 16 Father’s Day matinee, her Royal Highness - played by Jennifer Jonanos - was indeed present to greet and chat with the many children in the audience. The "queen" even knighted Borough President Marty Markowitz, who was in attendance, as "Sir Marty, Honorable Patron of the Arts," in consideration of his support of Brooklyn’s cultural organizations.

This is the third time Deborah Wright Houston, artistic director of the Kings County Shakespeare Company, has directed "The Tempest." She first directed the play in the mid-’80s, then in the mid-’90s at Prospect Park’s band shell.

"I love ’The Tempest,’" Houston told GO Brooklyn. "It particularly speaks to me. I love the romances, and ’The Tempest’ is a romance."

But "The Tempest" is also "dark and light," says Houston. "It is very complex."

Indeed, Shakespeare’s final play is filled with images of mortality. Prospero tells Ferdinand: " Then our actors/As I foretold you, were all spirits, and/Are melted into air, into thin air/And, like the baseless fabric of this vision/The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces/The solemn temples, the great globe itself/Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve/And, like this insubstantial pageant faded/Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff/As dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep."

Although "The Tempest" is considered one of the most personal of Shakespeare’s works (many have seen Prospero’s resignation of magic as a reflection of Shakespeare’s own farewell to playwriting), its plot is based on the much-publicized story of the passengers aboard the Sea-Venture. In June 1609, the ship, on its way to Virginia, ran ashore off the coast of the Bermudas during a storm; the passengers miraculously survived and arrived at Jamestown on small boats they’d constructed themselves.

In Shakespeare’s play, Prospero, a magician and philosopher, lives on an enchanted island where he and his daughter, Miranda, have found refuge after his brother, Antonio, aided by Alonso, king of Naples, usurped his dukedom of Milan. Thanks to a book on magic supplied by Gonzalo, an old counselor, Prospero was able to free Ariel, an airy spirit whom the dead witch Sycorax had imprisoned in a cloven pine; and attempt the education of the witch’s son, Caliban, whom Prospero later made into a slave after he tried to rape Prospero’s daughter.

Using his magic, Prospero calls up a tempest that shipwrecks Alonso and his son Ferdinand and brother Sebastian, as well as Antonio and Gonzalo on the island as they return from Tunis where Alonso’s daughter Claribel has just wed the king. Ferdinand promptly falls in love with Miranda. Sebastian and Antonio scheme against Alonso. And Prospero, with the help of Ariel, attempts to right the wrongs he has suffered.

In the Kings County Shakespeare Company’s production, Alonso is Alonsa, Queen of Naples (Nayokah Marlyne Afflack); Gonzalo is Gonzala (Lou Kylis); Sebastian is Sebastiana, sister to Alonsa (Bev Lacy); and Trinculo is Trincula, a clown (Sabrina Yocono).

Joseph Hamel plays Antonio; Carrie Edel is a sweet and sympathetic Miranda; Jovina Chan romps as Ariel; Achilles Vatrikas is a convincingly disgusting Caliban; and Leo Bertelsen is a powerful Prospero. Unlike Houston’s bandshell "Tempest," in which she not only changed the sex of characters and the play’s setting, but also introduced physically challenged actors, this "Tempest" takes no further liberties with Shakespeare’s work.

Houston says that the gender changes in her productions reflect the larger number of females in her company. But she also insists that she only makes changes in light of the text "as I see it," and these changes are consistent with her belief that "if Shakespeare had been allowed to use women he would have."

"Because he had boy actors, and because it was a man’s world, women figure very small. That’s why today some companies use all-female casts. Certain plays lend themselves to gender changes," she says.

"Every era has reinvented Shakespeare. In the Victorian era, they made happy endings. Romeo and Juliet kissed and made up, and walked off into the sunset."

"The Tempest" marks the debut of the company’s Thespis group, named after the Greek dramatist traditionally credited with the invention of tragedy, and comprised mainly of young, non-union Kings County Shakespeare talent who share the stage with more seasoned performers.

For the most part, the production achieves a high level of professionalism. Bertelsen is particularly well-suited to the role of Prospero. He is thoughtful and passionate, and walks with dignity if not exactly majesty. Vatrikas is a perfectly craven Caliban, whining, wheedling, vicious and ridiculous. Yocono as the clown and Roger Dale Stude as Stephano, a drunken sailor, provide a welcome dose of physical humor.

But there’s still something not quite there about the production. There’s plenty of Houston’s "dark," but not nearly enough of the "light." "The Tempest" is not only a romance; it is also a comedy. Too many in the cast are so busy being evil they forget to be funny.

Shakespeare demands a certain energy of movement to complement the poetry of his words. This production has all the poetry. It could use a little more pep.

 

Kings County Shakespeare Company’s "The Tempest" plays through June 30. Performances are Mondays and Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm, at Founders Hall, St. Francis College, at 182 Remsen St. in Brooklyn Heights. Tickets are $12, $7 seniors and children under 12. For tickets, call Smart Tix at (212) 206-1515 or visit www.smarttix.com.

On June 23, the production will host a book signing for "The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Shakespeare" (Continuum) by Dick Riley and Pam McAllister. On June 29, there will be a panel discussion on interpretations of "The Tempest" with speakers from the faculty of St. Francis College. Call (718) 398-0546 for more information.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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