Theatre Coup d’Etat is a company that loves a shipwreck.
Less than a year after it presented an ambitious adaptation of “Moby Dick,” it’s doing the same with William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which begins with magician Prospero causing the titular storm and grounding the ship of her brother/rival, Antonio, who sent her and daughter Miranda to an island a dozen years earlier. The idea is for Prospero (Meri Golden, clad in what appears to be ripped-up Eileen Fisher separates) to confront her brother, so she can return to Milan and regain her title there.
Director James Napoleon Stone’s production greets audiences with one great decision — the play takes place on an island, so why not perform it surrounded by a single-row circle of 45 chairs? — and adds many more.
Stone positions a trio of sprites who do Prospero’s bidding mostly outside the ring of chairs, so we’re enveloped in their graceful, vaguely unnerving presence. He and Golden wisely pare a complicated play that’s more like three complicated plays to a brisk 100 minutes that puts the focus on three key elements: Prospero’s schemes, Miranda’s budding relationship with an innocent visitor to the island and the rowdy, Three Stooges-esque antics of a trio of rustics led by Madeleine Rowe’s Stephano.
One of the hallmarks of Coup d’Etat, which does classic work with large and diverse casts, is the inventive use of the varied spaces in which it performs. For “Tempest,” a high-ceilinged room in SpringHouse Ministry Center presents lighting challenges; I strongly recommend you avoid the chair in the southwest corner, where a bright light will shine directly in your eyes for a quarter of the show.
But it also offers Stone unusual avenues to get the actors in and out of the playing space, including a wall with a row of doors that makes a big visual impact, and it lends Forest Godfrey’s atmospheric sound design an echoey quality that heightens the isolated setting.
Some may lament that this “Tempest” diminishes the impact of Prospero’s wounded underling, Caliban, whose pain can set the tone for the tragicomedy. But what we get instead is a pretty and youthful romance, enacted by Stephanie Ruas and Clay Man Soo Sletta, as well as a Prospero who is calmly focused on trying to find balance in the world and a hilarious Stephano. In fact, one gesture in Rowe’s bawdy performance encompasses both the gleeful boisterousness and plain-spoken gravity of this production: After a night of carousing by her character, she hurls repeatedly into her hat and then, mustering as much dignity as possible, places it back on her head.
That’s just one detail among many in Coup d’Etat’s thoughtful “Tempest” and it has me eagerly anticipating the company’s next shipshape show, which I assume will be about the Titanic or Robinson Crusoe or “Gulliver’s Travels.”