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Theatre Coup d’Etat’s 'The Tempest': Shakespeare goes horror this season

Craig James

Craig James

If you go into Theatre Coup d’Etat’s new production not knowing much about the plot of The Tempest, you may leave still not knowing much about the plot of The Tempest. What you’ll gain, though, is an understanding of the elemental forces at play in Shakespeare’s supernatural drama: wind, water, spirit, revenge.

SpringHouse Ministry Center
$18-$40

It’s a natural piece for Coup d’Etat to tackle. James Napoleon Stone’s company is distinguished by physical zeal and a meticulously crafted sense of atmosphere, both of which help transform the sanctuary of the SpringHouse Ministry Center into a haunted island.

Stone, who directs, positions the audience very literally in the round. Seats are arranged in a single-layer circle, with gaps for cast members to move through. They do so with such speed and frequency that if you cross your legs, you might find your foot getting caught in Prospero’s robes.

A problem with this approach is that in the highly reverberant space, with actors often facing away from you (sometimes clear across the room) as they spool rapidly through their dialogue, it can be nearly impossible to follow some of the language. Props are few and set elements nonexistent, so visual cues are largely limited to blocking and Mark Kieffer’s swirling lighting.

This is a case, then, where unless you’re a committed Bard buff, it definitely pays to dust off your reading guide and do a little prep before going in. If you do know the story, you can sit back and enjoy the energetic performances in this satisfyingly immersive show.

Meri Golden strikes a nice balance between love and hate as Prospero, the stranded magician whose daughter Miranda (a luminous Stephanie Ruas) knows only their life on an island where Prospero has mastered the elements and plots to remedy their exile by wedding Miranda to the royal Ferdinand (Clay Man Soo).

This production really belongs to two trios of actors who enliven the action in very different ways. As the pathetic and grotesque Caliban, Craig James Hostetler joins forces with Madeleine Rowe and Kevin Fanshaw as Stephano and Trinculo, fueled by “celestial liquor” and mounting a farcical coup against Prospero.

While those three carry the comedy, Stone splits the spirit Ariel into three roles: an “Ariel Prime” (Kelly Nelson), an “Ariel Water” (Mairead Koehler), and an “Ariel Wind” (Sophina Saggau). As they do Prospero’s bidding with the promise of winning their freedom, the spirits swirl around the room, singing in eerie harmony and lending a deliciously creepy sense of unseen forces.

It’s a superb example of the company’s skill at achieving impact through actors’ physical presence. Elaborate makeup helps to convey a sense of the spirits’ otherworldliness and Caliban’s reptilian nature.

This is an apt Tempest for the Halloween season, when the world seems to come alive with malevolent forces. Though the show’s successes come at the expense of some clarity in storytelling, this is a distinctive production that’s well worth seeing.