Reviews NYC Regional Published 7 June 2014

The Tempest

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey ⋄ 28th May - 22nd June 2014

Being human.

Patrick Maley

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has given itself a challenge in opening  its season with The Tempest. Director Bonnie J. Monte has met the play’s challenges and gives us a graceful Tempest with a keen eye towards the play’s most compelling characters.

The most immediate difficulty facing a director of The Tempest is how to keep the bear of an opening scene lively and compelling. In truth it’s a clunky exposition dump: on the occasion of the shipwreck that will bring Prospero his chance at redemption, he decides the time is meet to tell his daughter Miranda all the details of his personal and political history, and the conditions of their exile. Just when that heap of information has been adequately presented, Ariel and Caliban enter and we must then hear their stories in great detail. Finally, after the twists and turns of the plot roll out, the long final scene takes its sweet time unravelling the several disparate knots into which the plot has been wound. It is a play that teeters at all times on the precipice of tedium.

Monte seems aware of that danger, if not always effective at staving it off. Fortunately, during the opening scene, Sherman Howard embraces Prospero’s inner turmoil and gives us some intriguing personal drama. Prospero is in complete control of the forces driving The Tempest’s plot: everything from the shipwreck that brings his adversaries to the island to the love affair between Miranda and Ferdinand to the ultimate futility of the murder plot against him falls under his domain of knowledge and power. There’s sometimes a tendency to play Prospero as aloof and wholly confident in the machinations of his plot. Howard avoids this admirably. His Prospero is vexed and uncertain: he is pretty sure that now is the time to bring his trials to an end, but he is not entirely confident that doing so is the proper course of action. At once paternal with Miranda and draconian with Caliban and others, Howard gives us a Prospero who is engaging in his lack of complete likability. This is a Prospero more human than wizardly.

And this human element extends to the play’s two least human characters, Ariel and Caliban. Both are exotic creatures that Prospero found on the island upon his arrival and promptly enslaved. Neither is thrilled about the predicament. Jon Barker’s Caliban and Erin Partin’s Ariel are both marked by an awareness of their powerlessness, a reluctance to commit themselves fully to the service of their domineering master, and at all times a clear vulnerability.

The Tempest is regarded as Shakespeare’s comment on the rise of colonialism in the early seventeenth century, finding in Caliban and Ariel varying portraits of colonialized subjects. Ariel seems more willing to play ball with her powerful overlord, while Caliban is certainly less so, but in both Shakespeare gives us characters whom we might pity as unwilling subjects of an overbearing interloper on their land. That compassion can certainly be strained by Caliban, but Barker reveals the vulnerable and powerless victim behind the bitterness and spite and the production benefits from Monte’s decision to make Caliban more of a primitive human than an exotic monster. The choice makes for an added layer of colonial critique when Caliban is constantly referred to as “monster”: in the eyes of the supposedly civilized Europeans, this primitive islander is an unthinkable aberration.

Shakespeare had a particular talent for writing drunks, and the sots in this play are pure joy. Jeffrey M. Bender’s Stephano saunters onto the stage with a crock of booze under his arm and sea shanty on his lips and proceeds unabashedly to steal the show. Neither too reserved nor over-the-top hokey, Bender expertly keeps Stephano in the sweet spot of hilarious buffoonery. In a play so concerned with relationships along the strata of power, Stephano becomes king of the clowns to whom Caliban grovels in reverence for his liquor, and for whom is drinking buddy Trinculo becomes an unwitting drunken courtier. Patrick Toon’s Trinculo is a constant delight in his confusion and consternation: his not certain why Stephano has become the leader of their bacchanal, but he’ll play along provided the booze keeps flowing.

The Tempest can be a daunting play but although Monte’s production might not find solutions to all the play’s particular challenges, it certainly captures the heart of the play’s complex and captivating characters.

Patrick Maley

Patrick Maley, PhD is a student at Seton Hall University School of Law and author of After August: Blues, August Wilson, and American Drama (University of Virginia Press, 2019). His work also appears in Modern Drama, Theatre Journal, Comparative Drama, Field Day Review, Eugene O'Neill Review, Irish Studies Review, and New Hibernia Review. He also reviews theater regularly for The Star-Ledger and

The Tempest Show Info

Directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast includes Andy Baldeschwiler, Jon Barker, Jeffrey M. Bender, Richard Bourg, Adam C. Burns, James Costello, V Craig Heidenreich, Sherman Howard, Rob Krakovski, Lindsey Kyler, Jackson Moran, Erin Partin, Patrick Toon

Show Details & Tickets


Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.