A magic isle of fabric and tape

The Tempest, said to be Shakespeare’s last play and his homage to the stage, has long captivated audiences with its magical characters and themes of discovery. Prospero, the exiled duke of Milan, shipwrecked on a tiny island, has harnessed the island’s magic and assumed dominion over its inhabitants. These include his daughter Miranda, and the enslaved Ariel, an “airie spirit” and Caliban, the half-human half-animal son of a witch. 

Stephano (Noah Grabeel) and Trinculo (Charlotte Bush) reunite in Four County Players’ production of The Tempest.

Director Sara Holdren infuses the play with beauty and surprise that suit the spirit of the play. Her strength lies in creating magic out of fabric and duct tape, which she does here lovingly. The open stage is draped in old bits of fabric that resemble leaves, a dream-like forest of trees painted on the back wall. But she never lets us forget we are in a theater. The entrance to Prospero’s cell is a green satin curtain. The creative staging in a tiny space, skewered with three columns (effectively used as perches by Ariel and Caliban), made me miss the Live Arts of yore, where low ceilings and columns were delicious obstacles.

Music is a central force in this production, thanks to sound designer John Holdren. (He also plays Prospero.) The titular tempest swirls out from an aria, and Holdren, as Prospero, seems to call the notes up from a dark secret interior. His portrayal is perhaps one of the most world-weary that I have seen. He plays the part with compassion and gentleness, qualities that are often lost in more thunderous interpretations. Through his eyes, we see it as a play about giving up something you never wanted in the first place.

Also of note is Josephine Stewart as Ariel, another moody (in this production) inhabitant of the island, yearning for the freedom that Prospero has promised her. Stewart endows the role of the spirit with physical life and internal focus that ground the character firmly in another species, a rare and important accomplishment. Emma Duncan is a delight as the awkward and joyous Miranda who rubs heads to show affection. Julian Oquendo’s Caliban finds some nice moments of reverie for the island he loves. Bill Smith, as the old counselor Gonzalo, has an expressive face that makes him imminently watchable.

Unfortunately, the comic scenes leave something wanting. Some of the script’s heftiest moments, like Prospero’s confrontation of his enemies, feel unmined. Still, the play succeeds. A particularly magic scene is the masque of Act 4 Scene 1, the surprise of which I will not ruin here. During it I felt a pure sense of wonder—childlike and unquestionable, again buoyed by the spectacular soundscape. 

Go see Shakespeare in a little room with columns—there isn’t a space in Charlottesville that works in quite the same magical way anymore.—Amanda McRaven