The Tempest at Pulse Ensemble Theater(Photo: Scott Wynn)
The Tempest at Pulse Ensemble Theater
(Photo: Scott Wynn)
The Pulse Ensemble Theater's outdoor production of Shakespeare's The Tempest begins with an exceptionally clever staging of the titular storm: Alexa Kelly's cast, perfectly synchronized, hurl themselves up and down the ship's rigging (part of a versatile, handsome set by Roger Hanna). Tossed by winds and battered by rain, they scamper uselessly about as they holler their terror to each other and to the skies. The power of the elements is further evoked by a torrent of thunderous, howling sound effects cooked up by Louis Lopardi.

But Lopardi's work is so thunderous and so howling and the cast is involved in such furious movement that, while we can tell the ship is going down and that its passengers aren't happy, we have no idea of what is being said. Characters are introduced--notably, the befuddled counselor Gonzalo--but we hardly get a chance to meet them, because their dialogue is swallowed by all of the elemental commotion. Shakespeare's entire opening scene, overwhelmed by the brilliance of the designers, is lost at sea.

And so it goes from there. Kelly and her creative team (including not only Hanna and Lopardi, but also costumer Terry Leong, lighting designer Zhanna Gurvich, and composer Joseph Pehrson) have done hugely impressive work, and Pulse's Tempest is visually and aurally striking from beginning to end. But, from the first scene onward, Kelly is too willing to sacrifice Shakespeare's characters and plot points to stagecraft. Yes, Prospero (Damian Buzzerio) looks and acts wizardly as he stands magisterially atop the set, dramatically underlit, a summer wind tussling with the hem of his black robe; but his motivations and deeper nature remain mostly obscure. The second-act wedding celebration, during which Prospero and his spirit servant Ariel (the acrobatic Sandy York, her movements cleverly echoed by auxiliary nymphs Megan Bienstock and Sarah Scott) summon up three singing goddesses, is beautifully costumed and beautifully sung; but missing is any clear indication of why Prospero has called them up, who and what they are exactly, and why Shakespeare chose to interrupt his complicated, play-long revenge plot for this extended interlude.

The Tempest principally concerns Prospero, the usurped duke of Milan turned sorcerer, who shipwrecks his adversaries and toys with their fates. Meanwhile, he plays matchmaker with his daughter Miranda and the handsome Ferdinand, the latter grieving for his father lost at sea. In the Pulse production, we move from scene to scene, often impressed--by the makeup for the monster Caliban, the balletic movements of Ariel and her fellow-spirits, the spirited comedy of the drunk scenes between Stephano (Kurt Uy) and Trinculo (Ron Nahass)--but never engaged or given a chance to catch the details of the plot. When Prospero forgives his former enemies, reunites Ferdinand with his father, and plans his return to the real world in the final scene, the sense of anticlimax is palpable.