THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare
directed by T.J. Walsh
by Alexandra Bonifield

AESTHETIC — noun: A guiding principle in matters of artistic beauty and taste; artistic sensibility. An underlying principle, a set of principles, or a view often manifested by outward appearances or style of behavior.

Nearly all theatre companies in this region function with mission statements, action plans of a sort, some better crafted, better articulated and better adhered to than others. Few in this region seem to have a genuine aesthetic, a “sensibility and guiding principle”, one that reaches much beyond “get butts in the seats”. While focused on doing good work for the public good and making it pay, please don’t forget to build a unifying aesthetic. Every year in June Trinity Shakespeare Festival springs to life on the campus of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth…a noisy, ambitious, energetic, hopeful version of Brigadoon. Every one of six years now, I have welcomed its emergence from the mists of creativity, scholarly rigor and rigorous craft mastery. Every year one show elevates my understanding of another Shakespeare play to a new level of delighted appreciation while the second production entertains me. I trust T.J. Walsh and his worthy creative team. They possess a palpable, definable aesthetic that permeates both productions, no matter the caliber of execution.

“The rarer action is in virtue than vengeance.” Prospero, The Tempest

In 2014, T.J. Walsh took on the challenge of directing The Tempest, beloved by many (including me), Shakespeare’s Swan Song to the theatre. Nobody interprets text with more thorough comprehension than Walsh does. He can transform entire scenes based on the different use of just one word or phrase, giving fresh, unexpected perspective to a performance. Here his talents shine. The Tempest, with its initial tsunami of a storm and parade of otherworldly creatures and unusual people, often gets presented as a fantasy spectacle with scads of over-acted buffoonery, a tad of innocent, but trite, romance and a sprawling wealth of overdone, elaborate set design. The play gets lost behind the spectacle circus act, except for a few key speeches. Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s The Tempest is the regional Shakespeare hit of the season, set against a constellation-filled sky that soars splendidly to the heavens in the Marlene and Spencer Hays black box theatre (scenic design by Sean Urbantke, lighting Michael Skinner, sound Toby Jaguar Algyar). Simple, elegant, focused yet unhurried, uncluttered, grand in universal scope yet intimately personal – it’s a metaphorical journey of enlightenment, a dharmic meditation for all on the play’s life path. The banished, embittered Prospero has created a chaotic world of disunity, as if he were following a principle of adharma. Everyone on his island, from his gentle, loving spirit muse Ariel to the Duke who banished him wrongly from Naples, to the unhappy “monster” Caliban, are little more than despairing prisoners of his will, tools locked up in confusion, resentment and misapprehension. It’s not until Prospero’s daughter Miranda falls openly, honestly in love with the young prince Ferdinand that her father strands on the island and treats as an orphaned servant that Prospero recognizes the cruel error of the revenge-driven world he has manifested with evil magic and sets all on the path to harmony and love. The transformation effected on every character by play’s end ricochets throughout the audience with heartfelt resonance and transformational release. Shakespeare was more likely a closeted Catholic than a Buddhist, certainly; yet his genius explored many ways of being. This is the most uncomplicated, loving production of The Tempest I have yet seen. As Prospero, J. Brent Alford brings his masterful ease with the complex language and depth of character development into full play and earns the audience’s teary devotion. He lives every step of the arc of transformation from adharma to dharma. Bradley Gosnell and Alyssa Robbins make an evenly balanced Ferdinand and Miranda, sensual, measured inspiration to the joys of innocent love. The Mutt and Jeff world of Richard Haratine as Stephano and Jakie Cabe as Trinculo resonates with eye-roll inspiring hijinks, with the more serious realities of Prospero’s contemporaries Alonso and Antonio in weighty counterbalance (Alex Chrestopoulos and Chris Hury). Kelsey Milbourn makes a divinely beautiful, yet tortured Ariel, as light on her feet as a falcon’s feather yet weighted down with sorrow due to Prospero’s dis-unifying manipulation.

I was amazed to see David Coffee playing Caliban, both a physically and mentally challenging role. He so completely embodied the hunched over, hostile slave-spirit I forgot it was Coffee acting, and all preconceptions of Caliban’s embodiment slipped from my mind. His final transformation to a clear-visaged, erect standing free man of dignity was one of those “special” ecstatic theatre moments a critic longs for but doesn’t always witness. Director Walsh knew exactly what he was doing in casting Coffee in this challenging role and where he was taking him to fully illustrate Shakespeare’s text. Namaste.