Savage Rose Classical Theatre closes its fifth season this week — what it’s been calling its “Season of Storms,” a tribute to Shakespeare — with “The Tempest,” the shipwrecked quasi-comedy considered to be Shakespeare’s solo swan song. Directed by Kelly Moore in her company directorial debut, this production is a solid rendering of Shakespeare’s cautionary and often-funny tale about the perils of malignant ambition and the power of forgiveness.
“The Tempest” runs through Saturday evening at Walden Theatre, where Savage Rose has staged their entire season. The company will reprise its darkly funny and brutal production of “King Lear” in the Kentucky Shakespeare community repertory August 13-17 in Central Park, and then launches its next season in November with Jean Genet’s “The Maids.”
Set on a remote island, “The Tempest” begins with a storm created by the former duke of Milan, Prospero (Brian Hinds), a scholar whose interests in magic have grown considerably in exile, with assistance from his servant spirit Ariel (Neill Robertson). The storm wrecks the ship carrying Alonso, king of Naples (Tony Prince), his jealous brother Sebastian (Robert McFarland) and son Ferdinand (Tony Pike), Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio (Herschel Zahnd), and wise lord Gonzalo (Monte Priddy), along with their servants and crew, but the men are all washed ashore separately and not harmed.
Prospero’s teenaged daughter Miranda (the appealing Melinda Beck) is distraught by the storm, but soon learns of her royal origins as Prospero plots to put Antonio and Alonso back in their places and retake his place in society. That’s helped along by Miranda falling in love at first sight with Ferdinand, whom Pike plays with a sweet, dopey charm. Along the way, a drunken comic subplot featuring the butler (Tom Luce), the jester (Michael Roberts) and the resentful half-man/half-beast Caliban (Gerry Rose) steals the show.
This entire Savage Rose season has been a treat — three intelligent, thoughtful productions of very different Shakespeare plays (“Twelfth Night” and “King Lear” round out the season) that have offered showcase roles to some of Louisville’s most intriguing classical talents. In “The Tempest,” Neill Robertson shines in the role he was born to play, the airy spirit Ariel, who owes his life to Prospero and does his bidding while discovering the just-out-of-reach joys of being human. Robertson, who also designed his character’s gorgeous makeup, is an Ariel for the ages, a kinetic, shimmering creature whose odd beauty is cut with a dangerous bite. He’s the perfect foil for the bestial Caliban, whom Rose portrays with a howling, loping vigor quite in contrast to his usual elegant edge.
For his part, Hinds gives us a quirky, odd duck Prospero, an interpretation of the wronged, exiled duke that suits the character much more than the usual stately, Gandalfian portrayals. One can easily see how Prospero could have completely missed his brother Antonio’s schemes to seize power until it was too late to fight back, and as Zahnd seduces the seething McFarland into another usurping plot, it’s also easy to see how he could have seized power over Milan in the first place.
Roberts and Luce really sink their teeth into two of Shakespeare’s silliest drunken fools, with Roberts single-handedly re-defining Trinculo’s line “I could find it in my heart to beat him” as a new/old twist on the classic Southern epithet “bless his heart.”
For the most part, Moore keeps the pace rocking, with the show feeling at least thirty minutes shorter than its 2.5 hour run time. A couple of the stand-around-and-talk scenes drag a bit, notably the spirit pageant Prospero conjures for his daughter and Ferdinand, but its placement in the text can’t help but slow things down (maybe to give time for Globe audiences to find the bar?).
Savage Rose is faithful to textual origins (you won’t find them staging the “Eighties Mafia Version” of “Hamlet”) and so Shana Lincoln’s costumes are Renaissance Italian and shipwreck shabby chic, and spare set strewn with books (design by Alec Volz, Clay Marshall, and Moore) allows the acting to take center stage. Artistic director J. Barrett Cooper helms an effective sound design, including haunting vocal effects on Ariel thanks to a wireless body mic, and Jesse AlFord’s lighting design helps transition the action from Prospero and Ariel’s illusions to real-life experience.