The beloved tradition of Shakespeare in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park continues, courtesy of Fenix Theatre Company, and this year it’s one of Shakespeare’s deepest and wisest comedies: “The Tempest.”
On a hill overlooking the Deering Oaks fountain and flocking seabirds, four white sheets billowing in the breeze, Fenix makes beautifully visceral the Bard’s tale of storm and forgiveness, of new love and sure mortality.
Under the vibrant direction of Stacey Koloski, Fenix ushers in the inciting storm with a full-cast bevy of sound: sheet-metal thunder, piccolo, flute, violin, and wooden wind chimes. And then we meet Prospero (Peter Brown) and his daughter Miranda (Campbell Gibson), as they discuss the past and prepare to meet who the storm brings in.
In Brown’s hands, Prospero’s rage and bitterness are active and harrowing. As he recalls the brother who betrayed him and his lost dukedom, his trauma catches in his throat, shudders his voice, gives him such a migraine that he holds his head in his hands. With his brother and shipmates on the island, herded and poked by the fairy Ariel (Kat Moraros), Prospero painfully purges his rage.
Meanwhile, there’s also love, conniving, and drunkenness happening on the island. As Miranda, Campbell Gibson offers an endearing and timeless candor, and as her new beau, Ferdinand, in turquoise and gold, Nate Stephenson is all earnestness and chivalry.
Prospero’s brother Antonio (Mara Monaghan) and his buddy Sebastian (Morgan Fanning) are snarky to their sad-sack king Alonso (Zack Handlen) and narrow their eyes cravenly to scheme once he’s asleep. And the drunken butler Stephano (Kyle Aarons) and Trinculo (Hollie Pryor) give a perfectly rollickingly crass slapstick routine of debauchery.
The production has some physical comedy fun with magic: Ariel, an ebullient delight in the hands of Moraros, has men lunging after spectral voices; Prospero tweaks his staff, and Caliban tumbles to the ground.
And as that earthy “monster” Caliban, Joe Bearor growls, snorts, and cowers in a brown gabardine, but eschews more “monstrous” physical grotesqueries. Instead, he imbues a striking dignity into Caliban – who was in fact native to this island, greeted Prospero kindly, and was later enslaved.
While the colonialist critique isn’t made overtly, Bearor grounds Caliban’s rage in a felt injustice and even sorrow. He makes exquisitely wistful and sad Caliban’s famous monologue: “The isle is full of noises,” he says, slowly and wracked with longing. “Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.”
Meanwhile, as the plotlines work themselves out, Brown lets us watch the vulnerable, painful process he makes of Prospero’s catharsis, as his rage is replaced by something else: a sense of age and an inevitable end to both magic and life.
It’s a timeless story, youth rising as the old man cedes his powers. Come out to the park with friends and kin of all ages, and bask in Fenix’s warm-hearted and enchantingly performed offering of its beauty and truth.
The inciting conflict of “Lysistrata” – endless war – remains all too timeless. And so we still find comedic solace in Aristophanes’ ancient story of the women who put an end to war by refusing to put out.
It’s the pink togas versus the blue, literally, in the Theater at Monmouth’s spirited production, directed by Danielle Drakes.
In ancient times, Lysistrata was played by a man, a tradition to which modern companies sometimes nod by having the role played by a man in drag – a casting choice which, as Drakes’ director’s notes observe, makes a very particular kind of comedy and spectacle of the female gender.
Instead, Monmouth presents the marvelously sly, smooth, and savvy Trezure Coles in the title role. Her Lysistrata is no camp and all competence. As she rallies other women to her cause, her capability and grace are formidable and sensual, and she takes giddy pleasure as their plan starts working – and as the men start showing up in horny agony.
Classically, “Lysistrata” is a romp, full of slapstick, innuendo, and huge fake erections, and Monmouth offers these aplenty – topiaries are sensually caressed; the phalli are silver and shiny. Into the physical comedy, Drakes injects some modern inflections with fist bumps, hip hop, funk, and disco beats; a boxing-ring bell, and exaggerated Southern-style accents and swagger from the Spartan woman Lampito (Erin Amlicke).
Amidst these more modern nods, the production also holds to some classical theatrics, including plain white masks for the chorus, and buckets of blue ribbons that the women dump on the men to “put out their fire” – leaving them, as one man moans pitifully, “wrinkled up from shivering with cold.”
The play is an endurance test of comedy, and at times in this production, the energy and pacing flag a little. But it offers a wealth of lusciously executed sequences. Michael Liebhauser gives a terrific physical performance-cum-standup routine as an irate Magistrate condemning the women’s tactics (he even slides into a near-full split); he and Coles also have a delicious pas de deux as he threatens and she sinuously evades and provokes.
In another perfectly executed scene, Jamie Saunders and Thomas Campbell are a hoot as Myrrhine and her painfully erect husband Cinesius, as she faux-promises to lie down with him but keeps prolonging it by fetching cushion after cushion.
The men, of course, ultimately give in, and peace and love ensue – along with a rousing disco-tinged song-and-dance number. It’s a vision that never gets old: everyone grooving together. May we all get closer to it.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.