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Review: Unseam'd players deliver 'Tempest' with abundant humor

| Sunday, June 16, 2013, 7:27 p.m.

The idea of a contemporary adaptation of a Restoration-era adaptation of Shakespeare's “The Tempest” sounded unwise, if not downright unnecessary.

Did Shakespeare really need improvement?

The Unseam'd Shakespeare Company did offer lures — their production of “The Tempest or the Enchanted Isle” would come in at just under two hours, including the 15-minute intermission.

Furthermore, its director, Michael Hood, had a successful track record for staging nontraditional Shakespeare plays for Unseam'd — a gender-bending “Macbeth” for three performers in 2009 and “Othello Noir” in 2009 that paid homage to screen detective stories.

I approached Studio Theatre in the basement of the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland with equal degrees of hopeful anticipation and skeptical trepidation.

What could 17th-century adapters John Dryden and William D'Avenant or contemporary adapter Scott Palmer of Bag&Baggage Productions of Hillsboro, Ore., add to Shakespeare's 1661 original?

Those fears were quickly washed away by a tidal wave of laughter.

What the Unseam'd production lacks in polish it makes up for with bravado and sly knock-about humor.

Briefly, “The Tempest” is the story of Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, who were exiled on an enchanted island after he lost his dukedom to his evil brother.

The island is populated by spirits, benign or monstrous, that Prospero controls with various degrees of success through his occult powers and spells.

Love, intrigue and abundant comedy wash up on the island's shores when a storm delivers Prospero's brother Antonio, King Alonso of Naples, the king's son Ferdinand, plus assorted courtiers and servants.

Prospero receives an opportunity to avenge his exile and his daughter discovers men.

The adapted adaptation comes with additional characters, who include Dorinda, a second daughter for Prospero.

Though it is shorter than Shakespeare's original, much of the original text is retained, including the most-familiar speeches that fans of the original are expecting to hear.

Much of the show's entertainment and amusement comes from its Restoration-era overlay that has the cast performing as actors of that period enacting Shakespeare's characters — actors bow to the audience on each entrance and deliver asides to the audience.

Those asides may be of particular help to those encountering the play for the first time. During long passages of explanation, servants and members of the court offer the verbal equivalent of highlighter pens to reinforce and call attention to important narrative points.

Hood directs the cast of 14 with an even hand, allowing characters such as Kevin Donohue's sprite Ariel to camp it up while Ron Siebert's Prospero plays his role with solid reality and seriousness.

Colleen Pulawski and Claire Chapelli, both of whom are undergraduates in the Carnegie Mellon University BFA program for acting, make an amusing and attractive pair of sisters who resemble each other, but have opposite reactions to their discovery of men and the emotions they evoke.

Brett Sullivan Santry's Trincalo, Charles Beikert's Stephano and Michael Perrotta's Mustacho increase the comedy with political posturing for power and a love for alcohol.

Scenic designer Gordon Phetteplace and lighting designer M. Ebeneezer Boone create a Restoration-era setting with wing and drop pieces decorated with lush tropical plants illuminated in part by a row of footlights. Costume designer Katherine Garlick runs the gamut from reasonably authentic 17th-century garments to flights of fantasy and feathers that cover the sprites and monsters.

Some of the additions, deletions and rearrangement of texts may send hard-core Shakespeare lovers and academics into a tizzy of discussion and complaints.

But taken as an amusing, irreverent and colorful evening's entertainment, “The Tempest or the Enchanted Isle” delivers.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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