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Shakespeare’s plays are so full of characters who show up to deliver a single line and then disappear that it’s almost impossible to assign each role to a different actor. Many productions distinguish between each actor’s multiple roles through costume changes, but in Quintessence Theatre’s production of The Tempest, onstage through Sunday, April 2, we meet most of the characters through masks.
Commedia dell’arte, the Italian theatrical style that inspired Quintessence’s Tempest, was a relatively new art form when Shakespeare’s works made their debut in England. Though there’s no evidence that commedia-style masks were used in Shakespeare’s plays at the time, the works did commonly make use of masks, both figuratively and literally: Elizabethan actors, like modern ones, were often cross-cast and would use masks to differentiate their characters. So this Quintessence production, featuring masks by Barbaric Yawp Workshop, might be truer to the plays’ original form than many other modern productions.
A tall order
But masked actors have to do a lot more work with their bodies, voices, and language than unmasked ones—multiplied by each character they play, especially with the physical comedy and movement-based work The Tempest sometimes requires. And add maneuvering with vision limited by masks, which might be hard to keep in place. And did I mention that the company of Quintessence’s Tempest also has to sing?
It is a tall order for any group of actors, but this Tempest company navigates the challenges of extensive mask work like the professionals that they are. If they struggled to sing or dance or speak or see with their masks, no one in the audience could tell. This is a testament to mask coach Trey Lyford, as well as to the other movement and vocal coaches and coordinators who contributed their talents to the production.
In other respects, this show is far from a traditional presentation. The action mostly takes place on a runway-shaped stage (designed by Ellen Moore and director Alex Burns) that thrusts diagonally into the theater, with no other set pieces or props to evoke the magical island. Instead, the settings are established by lights (Moore), sound (Burns), and a generous amount of dry ice. Jane Casanave’s costumes are versatile, allowing the masks to do a lot of the heavy lifting, with a few outstanding and ornate garments, such as the elaborately feathered harpy costume Ariel (Pat Moran) sports when appearing before the shipwrecked nobles who washed up on the island.
Burns’s layout of the Sedgwick’s black-box theater means that no two members of the audience see the same thing. It’s disorienting at first, until you get used to taking a wide view of the playing space.
Worth the trip
Often, adding a celebrity to a Philadelphia production means the rest of the company is forgotten. But as Prospero, storied actor Lawrence Pressman is an effective straight man in the chaos of the play. Quintessence regulars Jered McLenigan, Gregory Isaac, and Hillary Parker are especially good at holding their own here, especially in their scenes as Stephano, Caliban, and Trinculo, respectively. Marielle Issa (Miranda) and Langston Reese (Ferdinand), as well as Moran as Ariel, have the most onstage interaction with Pressman’s Prospero, and also shine where lesser actors might dim next to the star.
With a talented cast led by an actor you’ve probably seen countless times on TV or in film, impressive mask work, and inventive staging, Quintessence’s production of The Tempest is worth the trip to Mount Airy.
What, When, Where
The Tempest. By William Shakespeare, directed by Alex Burns. $20-$64. Through April 2, 2023, at Sedgwick Theater, 7131 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
Masks are encouraged but not required.
The Sedgwick is a wheelchair-accessible theater, and different seating accommodations may be made at the time of purchase. Open captioning is available at some performances.
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