Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Looks Like Rain: The Tempest at Keegan Theatre

Washington's Keegan Theatre specializes in Irish drama and well-known Americana, so Shakespeare's late-period romance The Tempest, now playing at the Church Street Theater, is a significant departure from its usual fare. D.C. audiences will have the chance to see four productions of The Tempest over the next five months, as part of the ongoing "Shakespeare in Washington" festival, and though the Keegan's Tempest probably won't be the best of the lot, at least it's first out of the gate.

There is much to love in the Keegan's low-budget yet resourceful production, and unfortunately, just as much that doesn't work. Director Timothy Shaw reduces the opening scene (with the eponymous bad weather) to pure gibberish -- and Shakespeare buffs won't easily forgive the way he eliminates nearly all the songs. Yet in the show's second half, when Shaw exerts a lighter touch and lets Shakespeare's language spring to life, the effect is magical nonetheless. True, this Tempest could have been much better, but on balance it's a worthy effort, well-suited for couples and families.

The story of Prospero, a banished nobleman-turned-sorcerer who transports his enemies to a deserted isle for a long-overdue reckoning, is one of Shakespeare's few original plots; and like his other original, A Midsummer Night's Dream, it's a clothesline on which he hangs some great poetry and nifty stage effects. And at the Keegan, the effects are spectacular. George Lucas’s desert-island set (which cleverly conceals the limitations of the Church Street stage) features a sandy beach, a cave, rock outcrops and stairways, a treehouse for Prospero, and most surprisingly, a ship that tilts to the side. Light designer Dan Martin provides a dark storm and shipwreck at the play’s outset, then bathes the island and the actors in reassuring tropical pastels for the rest of the evening.

The acting mixes the good, the bad, and the bizarre. Robert Leembruggen’s Prospero is sometimes well played, and sometimes overmannered. At worst, he recites his lines with the singsong lilt of W.C. Fields. Ally Raber is painfully amateurish as daughter Miranda, though she improves as the show progresses; Joe Baker, on the other hand, couldn't be better as her love interest Ferdinand. As Caliban, Mike Gregorek overacts in more serious moments, yet plays his low-comedy scenes with restraint and impeccable timing. But Jeremy Brown and Tim O’Kane play the clownish Trinculo and Stephano as a couple of roaring hillbillies, and Courtney Weber makes the carefree wind-sprite Ariel as surly as a Starbucks barista. I can't say that Brown, O'Kane and Weber are bad -- in their way, they're quite effective -- but they don't seem much like the characters Shakespeare wrote.

That said, I'm more inclined to praise than blame this particular Tempest. The Keegan is one of Washington’s many scrappy little troupes that keep young actors off the bread lines, give aspiring directors their first big break, and bring plenty of worthwhile plays to hungry locals. If the productions aren’t always what one might expect from a nationally renowned company like Arena Stage or Signature Theatre, neither are the prices. At only $25 per ticket (or $15 at downtown D.C.'s Ticketplace counter), this show is affordable, second-tier professional theater, uneven but intimate, and thoroughly enjoyable as long as one doesn’t expect too much.

The Tempest. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Timothy Shaw. Two hours and ten minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. At the Church Street Theater (near Dupont Circle) through February 18. For more information, call (703) 892-0202, or visit

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