Lie down with the Lambs

The Tempest

By William Shakespeare
Adapted by Doug Devita
Directed by Carrie Libling
Vital Children's Theatre
432 West 42nd St.
Non-union production (closes May 9)
Review by Deborah S. Greenhut

In 1878, Charles and Mary Lamb published a children's narrative work, Tales from Shakespeare. In following the Lambs' narrative, Doug Devita's adaptation of the tale of The Tempest presents a storm twice removed from its source. What happens on this Prospero's island is kinder and gentler than in Shakespeare's invention, but its spirit is preserved in Devita's magical adaptation of this story of love and forgiveness. Accented by expressive choreography (Ovi Vargas), and often delightful music and lyrics (Brian Hobbs), the second half of the hour-long production showed particularly capable direction by Carrie Libling and musical direction by Christopher Totaro.

The retained elements include the banishment of "powerful Prospero" (Matt Campbell), once the Duke of Naples, to an enchanted island for 12 years. There, Prospero raises his daughter, "lovely Miranda" (Dana Mierlak), assisted by the "spritely Ariel" (Erin Colleen). The now merely "misunderstood Caliban" (Mark Hayes) has forfeited some of the original savage, but then, so much of Caliban's bestial behavior is possibly inappropriate for younger theatre-goers, who range in age from perhaps seven to early teens. This Caliban's sufferings are relieved musically by the lovely, shadowy singing of his sympathetic mother, "mysterious Sycorax" (Kathleen Clancy). During a well-staged and suspenseful, but not too frightening, opening storm, the "dashing Ferdinand" (Stefan Basti) fell overboard from the boat he shared with the King of Naples, "hopeful Alonso" (David Shih), and the "evil Antonio," Prospero's scheming brother (Kevin Flinn), as the drama of family reconciliation began.

Matt Campbell gave the strongest performance as the powerful conjurer who bided his time to align his daughter, Miranda, with Ferdinand to heal the wounds of the past. His voice was commanding and sure, whether singing or speaking, but he neither condescended to nor frightened the children.

About halfway through the play, the lulling narrative tunes that soothingly described actions gave way happily to a more bouncy, dramatic, calypso-style song. At that moment, the energy of the production became dramatic and heightened the theatrical conflict. Director Carrie Libling took great advantage of the intimate theater space to make the younger viewers comfortable, staging one of Caliban's entrances as a climb over the audience from the back of the house -- an action well-executed by the wiry Mark Hayes as he snorted and sniffed his way among the spectators. The simple set (SherryAnn Danna) made good use of moving panels for sky, sea, and land. Costumes (Jeriana Hochberg) were attractively colorful, relying on various earth tones to convey symbolic messages of royalty, power, and servitude.

And what about the Bard? Shakespeare's language is mostly subordinated to narrative songs that carry the burden of the Lambs' version. The familiar question "what's in a name?"-- actually spoken by Juliet in Romeo and Juliet -- goes by, and Miranda's notable phrase, "Brave New World," climaxes a rousing ensemble tune rather than that character's final speech. One adaptation was puzzling -- the substitution of a child's game of "Slap" or "Made You Flinch" for the game of chess, which even the Lambs preserve from Shakespeare's play. It was hard to imagine that young audiences needed that much dumbing down. Chess is a quiet-looking game -- but there was plenty of busy movement swirling around the young couple as they played together.

Vital Theater is feeling its way carefully in planning a Shakespeare series for children. This adaptation favors the story rather than the poetry and portrays its Edenic naivete effectively. It was clear that the children enjoyed the performance. They waited afterward in eager, well-behaved lines for autographs from the actors.

  Box Score:

Writing: 2 Music: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2004 Deborah S. Greenhut