Courtesy of Kathleen DeAtley
Courtesy of Kathleen DeAtley

The Arts Studio theatre reminded me of a Halloween fright house on Thursday evening, March 8. An artificially dense, sickly sweet layer of fog hung low in the room, and the walls were decorated with beige tarps, torn to look mussed from the elements. On the stage stood raised wooden platforms designed to represent a ship, and a single podium sat at its center with a music stand illuminated by a lone, ominous light.

The setting sprawled throughout the elbow-grazingly intimate theatre and immediately set the tone for the evening. It was creepy. It was immersive. It was William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” directed by Christina Jensen, and it was a Shakespearean hit, if you don’t mind looking up the story’s context ahead of time.

“The Tempest” is about Prospero, an usurped duke of Milan and a powerful magician, who spent 12 years marooned on an island with his daughter Miranda. As part of his plot to restore his dukedom, he uses his magic to cause a tempest and wrecks the ship of his enemies. Along the way, we meet Ariel, Prospero’s spirit familiar; Ferdinand, son of the king of Naples; and Alonso, Prospero’s usurping brother.

Jensen’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s 17th century romance incorporated the powerful melodies of Beethoven’s symphonies, and a director’s note in the program explained the passionate connection between the music and play as emotional counterparts. The end result is a mighty soundtrack that suited the story, particularly during the opening scene, as Prospero casts his tempest with the flair of an orchestra conductor. The score also helped during moments of confusion; even when the Shakespearean English flew over my head, I was still able to grasp a scene’s emotional context through the music.

And that need for context ended up happening more often than not. While Shakespearean English is beautiful in its own right, lines occasionally sounded muffled and lost when they were not spoken directly at the audience. Even though I felt Prospero’s (Troy Whiteley) power as he expounded on backstory to his daughter Miranda (Jennifer Zheng), quickly-delivered lines meant that I missed half of his exposition in a sea of “thou” and “canst.” Of course, this might be an inherent drawback of Shakespearean plays before modern audiences, and in all honesty, a quick Sparknotes refresher might help first-time viewers better follow the plot.

Beyond my confusion, a number of actors completely embodied their characters. Whiteley’s booming voice and intense gaze captured Prospero’s enigmatic presence throughout his performance. As Ferdinand, Jordan Mackey brought a sense of boyish naïveté to his relationship with Miranda, and the comic pairing of Stephano (Emanuel Robinson) and Trinculo (Jeremy Garcia) was absolutely delightful. But above all other characters, Ariel (Joshua Montez) stole the show. As the airy, ethereal spirit, Montez introduced a gracefully maniacal edge to Ariel that captured my attention whenever he appeared on stage.

From a technical standpoint, the play also succeeded. The lighting was moody and appropriately created a sense of space, even as scenes were set in varied locations around Prospero’s island. The wooden platforms that represented the ship’s deck were well conceived, but they did not limit the actors; at one point, several hooded spirits stood directly in front of the first row, and Trinculo and Stephano ran around the perimeter of the theatre during a chase scene, all of which worked to create a dynamic environment between the stage and audience. I felt like I was part of Prospero’s island, which was an unexpected and delightful element of the performance.

“The Tempest’s” last show was Mar. 9, but the theatre department’s next event is a screening of “Names,” a film by David Campos, April 4 – 6.

Rating: 4 stars