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UDM Theatre Company comes full circle with its landmark 40th-anniversary show: The Tempest, in addition to reaching the 400-year milestone in 2011, was the university program's first-ever production. For a script that feels like an ending as well as a beginning, this staging (directed by Andrew Huff) rides a current of youthful exuberance, its best moments found in the playfulness of playing Shakespeare.

Huff's self-aware, make-do concept isn't itself novel, but its introduction via a clever prologue establishes the tone with incredible efficiency. Dr. Arthur J. Beer, faculty member and the production's Prospero, leads the cast in a table read of the initial shipwreck scene. His few remarks, cuts and staging notes, are subsequently implemented in the same scene replayed, using Melinda Pacha's piecemeal set and Mark Choinski's richly hued lights in tandem to make a low-budget yet effective version of the spectacle. This is what we have to work with, the device says, and this is how we'll tell this story. With a complete framework accomplished in minutes, the rest of the production is free to explore theatrical work-arounds that cleverly honor and subvert the play's fantastical elements, giving dialogue and relationship top billing over magic intervention.

Banished duke Prospero raises the tempest in order to bring a certain ship's travelers to his largely deserted island, and their own politics and plots wash ashore along with them. As Prospero's brother and usurper, Antonio, Daniel Jaroslaw balances cool evil with detestable subservience, encouraging like-minded power grabber Sebastian (Joel A. Frazee) to pull a similar coup on Alonso (Tim Jacobs), the King of Naples. As Jaroslaw and Frazee engage in giddy superiority over indefatigable sycophant Gonzalo (Keith Kalinowski), Alonso mourns the loss of his son, Ferdinand (Greg Grobis), who is separated from the group but not in fact dead. Landed in the company of Prospero, Ferdinand meets the magician's daughter, Miranda (Michelle Renaud), setting off an immediate, adorably chaste love affair whose histrionically pure, consuming passion puts the two children in their own world. Another sect of survivors is made up of clowns Trunculo (Chris Jakob) and Stephano (Anne Di Iorio), whose merely incidental relationship to the tangle of Prospero's plot makes Jakob and Di Iorio no less enjoyable for their inebriated mishaps and artificially inflated sense of importance.

The island's indigenous inhabitants, both inhuman crosses between magician assistants and slaves to Prospero, thread their own narratives through their master's carefully orchestrated plot. As the sprite Ariel, Autumn Thiellesen has an unsinkable Peter Pan quality that serves the character well for her several appearances in silhouette with a distorted, amplified voice over. The production's design makes frequent use of projected shadows, a compelling device to add visual aids to references and magic influences, but one that confines the shape-shifting Ariel to hidden places just offstage. Pacha's costume design plays with classical elements and contemporary touchstones both, making half-breed abomination Caliban (Joel Mitchell) seem primarily human under a snarling, almost simian veneer. Mitchell lends a playfully physical approach to a character whose pitiable treatment makes his behavior no less wretched, but underneath the wildness peeks a soul that could have been genteel had it been better instructed. As the chief architect of everything that happens, Beer keeps quiet command over his minions and players; his role as the unchallenged captain of the story is well met by the actor's stoicism and by a few crucial lighting cues that reveal how ordinary Prospero's island is when he lets down his guard.

In supplanting the magic of its story with the self-aware magic of theater, this production of The Tempest proves to be both capable and endearing. Most importantly, the play's framework is used not for its own sake, but so that fantasy may take a back seat to the real and vital interactions of a skillfully directed cast. Conspicuous design and clever bits of staging play with the magic of the production, but the unremarked-upon magic of the Shakespearean language in play is no less deserving of praise.


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