Bard Stiff

Creating theater frequently involves assembling miracles in small spaces. Extremely small spaces, if you happen to be the Florida Playwrights' Theatre (FPT), which is mounting its Fifth Annual Shakespeare Festival in its postage-stamp Hollywood storefront venue. Squeezing Hamlet and The Tempest -- Shakespeare's most popular play and his most magical -- onto a stage that's all of 15 feet deep by 30 feet wide might be compared to docking the QE2 at Dinner Key. The results, as you might expect, are sometimes charming but more often a mess.

The two plays appear in repertory. This means that two kings, one queen, several lovers, one jester, two gravediggers, several counselors and gofers (including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), assorted pages and sprites, three Greek goddesses, a boatswain, two spirits (one savage, one ethereal), a lonely prince, and a wily old magician must trek through the tiny performing space, all the while careful not to step on one another's toes nor fall into the laps of the audience sitting just inches away.

For the theatergoer, the repertory tradition of shoehorning actors into several parts has its rewards. The guy who one night plays Laertes (the brother of Hamlet's girlfriend Ophelia) shows up the next evening as a prince shipwrecked on a near-desert island and forced to tote firewood for a strange old man. The woman who acts the Player Queen in The Mousetrap -- the charade in which Hamlet famously sets out to "catch the conscience of the king" -- turns up later in The Tempest as Ariel, a spirit you'd never encounter in medieval Denmark. The effect is to draw the viewer into the stagecraft and to give us an intimacy with the actors that doesn't happen when there's just one play on the bill.

As partners in repertory, The Tempest and Hamlet are an intriguing match. Hamlet requires top-drawer acting and movement (after Henry V, it's Shakespeare's best action-adventure), while a production of The Tempest can almost stand on its evocation of magic alone. Both plays, however, are large-scale dramas. At the FPT The Tempest fares best, partially because it succeeds at portraying the strange universe of the tiny island ruled by Prospero. Unfortunately it also upstages its sister production, as Hamlet suffers from directorial mishaps and mediocre acting. Also, for reasons that remain mysterious, the actors in The Tempest get better costumes.

Directed by Paul Thomas, FPT's co-artistic director who also plays Alonso here and Hamlet's Claudius, The Tempest opens with a vision of nymphs (the young and quite charming Maddie Weisbrot, Jonathan Gutierrez, and Shannon O'Connor) dancing around Ariel, the good spirit who inhabits Prospero's island and does his bidding. Bird songs abound, music plays, and, just as Shakespeare intended, the power of magic rarely departs. This mood sets the scene for the appearance of Prospero, the magician who was once Duke of Milan until his title was usurped by his brother Antonio. He now has designs on the ship full of noblemen from Milan that crashes near the island as the play opens.

The set -- two raised platforms on either end of the performing space, decorated by a mural of a lush mountainous area -- is crude and ugly but ceases to be important once the actors arrive. The story, which comes into focus as Prospero tells his daughter Miranda of the events that led to her growing up motherless and alone with him on the island, is much like a fairy tale into which real people stray. Here those people are portrayed by performers who fall primarily into two camps: the actors who give lively but unpolished performances and those few who are capable of making something fresh out of their characters. Despite his own considerable shortcomings as an actor, Thomas is a good director. He deftly arranges the action to suit the bizarre sightlines of this tiny theater. Still, the energy of the play wanders into some unexpected places.

For example, France-Luce Benson's performance of Ariel has a lot of attitude but not a lot of design. She's exotic-looking and appealing, a dark-skinned actress outfitted in a white chiffon getup with silver sparkles on her skin, but her flashy style can't conceal a paucity of acting skills. On the other hand, Mike Maria, outfitted as the jester Trinculo in a four-color silk tunic with a matching bellhop's hat, gives one of the best portrayals of a minor Shakespeare character you'd ever want to see.

Speaking in an unidentifiable accent (Dutch? Oklahoman?), he cavorts like the happy offspring of a spider and an English music hall comedian. Every move is sure and thought out, and he's delightful to watch. What's unsettling, however, is that director Thomas allows Maria to overwhelm the scenes he's in. A person unfamiliar with the play might come away thinking that Trinculo was a crucial character rather than primarily a source of comic relief.

At the same time, David J. Hernandez plays Caliban, the evil spirit under Prospero's thumb, as a whiny stable boy and not the earthy, inarticulate lump of clay he's supposed to be. Seth Platt as Antonio is much too young to be Prospero's brother, but that doesn't matter because the subplot -- in which Antonio and Sebastian plot to kill the king of Naples -- never engages our attention. As Ferdinand, son of the king and the first man Miranda ever sets eyes on, Patrick Armshaw, with his corn-fed smile and boyish demeanor, is the very picture of a young Shakespearean lover. He's appealing and soulful and (unlike many around him) very much in control of iambic pentameter.

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