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Review: “The Tempest” gets a beautiful twist for return of Shakespeare in the Park

Carolyn Cook as Prospera and Neal A. Ghant as Caliban. (Photo by CarlChristiePhotography.com)

Shakespeare didn’t write a role for a computer-controlled interactive fountain in “The Tempest,” but it’s surprising to see how successfully the jets of Piedmont Park’s Legacy Fountain join the cast of Georgia Shakespeare’s new outdoor production of the play, which runs this weekend through May 13. They bubble turbulently during the famous storm scene and then quickly ebb when the spell is over, they ripple pleasantly for a magic banquet, and they become the perfect setting for Prospero’s final monologue.

Thankfully, the little jets are never divas, and the emphasis of this charming production remains right where it should be: on the Bard’s language, characters and storytelling. It’s a lovely show, and the cast’s use of Shakespeare’s language is solid, almost sculptural, in its clarity. Everything moves at just the right pace: slow enough that we can savor the speeches and situations, but quickly enough that we always feel we’re moving forward.

The use of the fountain isn’t the only smart innovation. Also interesting and successful is the use of a female actress, Carolyn Cook, in the role of Prospero, the former Duke of Milan (who here becomes Prospera, the former Duchess of Milan). Not only does Cook give a smart, lucid reading of the role, but the shift in genders gives the play’s situations a slightly different charge. Her disempowerment at the hands of men, her taking of the island from the (now fellow) witch Sycorax, and her final act of forgiveness all take on some new resonance with the change. Though the text alters (“father” becomes “mother” and so on), very little is lost with the shift and much is gained.

Especially touching is Prospera’s relationship with her daughter Miranda. It’s one of Shakespeare’s sweetest and loveliest parent-child relationships, which gets a nice and vivid rendering here as a mother-daughter relationship. Prospera wants to spare her daughter pain and betrayal: she’s been there. Caitlin McWethy’s Miranda, however, is a bit too modern and robust. As with several of Shakespeare’s young women, there’s not much more to Miranda than being torn between duty to father and to lover-husband.

Perhaps that’s not much for a contemporary actress to sink her teeth into, so McWethy seeks to inject the role with some independence, sass, knowingness, boldness and modernity. It’s an interesting take, but somehow what’s needed is more of the duller stuff — innocence, timidity, girlishness — to make the story of her change from daughter to wife fit sensibly and movingly into the dramatic arc.

Chris Kayser captures the right balance of energetic, noisy rebellion and cheerless obeisance as Ariel, and Neal A. Ghant’s Caliban is appropriately seething and resentful, but also sympathetic in his desire for more autonomy. Shakespeare’s plays are often really musicals, and there’s music throughout “The Tempest.” Sound designer Stephen LeGrand wisely realizes that music isn’t a secondary element here, but an essential component in conveying the magic of the island. Songs are pleasant and fully realized; too often, in other productions, they’re an afterthought, uncomfortably ugly or last a few quick seconds.

The setting itself is, surprisingly, more successful than the former venue for Shakespeare in the Park, the dock at Lake Clara Meer. The old spot did have a nice enclosed intimacy, but the new location near the Atlanta Botanical Garden is more expansive, comfortable, uncrowded and spacious. It’s a big space, and the actors are miked. Despite a few technical glitches on opening night, it all works nicely.

In all, the cast and crew have done a splendid job of transposing their indoor production to an outdoor setting, and it’s great to have our Shakespeare in the Park back after an absence. It was dreary to imagine that Atlanta couldn’t maintain something like that, and many thanks are due to the sponsor, the Loridans Foundation, for bringing it back. The new production will make you want Shakespeare in the Park every weekend throughout the summer. Until that lucky summer, get there ASAP and enjoy Georgia Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” while it lasts.

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