Magical 'Tempest' Has Nothing Up Its Sleeve

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007

4-D Art's "La Tempete" is theater for the YouTube generation: a gorgeous stunt that holds out the promise of a new role for video.

As an adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," though, it's also a gloomy bit of imagineering, the sort of production in which you must wait out the numbing dialogue scenes to get to each neat-o feat of electronic sleight-of-hand.

The animating idea seized on by the show's Montreal-based creative team is taken directly from the text, Prospero's haunting elegy for all things mortal: "The great globe itself /Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve /And like this insubstantial pageant faded /Leave not a rack behind."

A "rack" in this instance means a wisp of cloud, and the company's video sorcerers envelop the actors on the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower stage in strands of "virtual" mist. The plot has Prospero (Richard Theriault) using the supernatural powers he's acquired to exact revenge on his brother, Antonio (Eric Bernier), who years before usurped his dukedom. And here, Ariel (Manon Brunelle), the enslaved island spirit who does Prospero's bidding, appears in a little swirly cloud funnel that really does make it seem as if she materializes out of thin air.

As if to continually reinforce the notion of the insubstantial pageant, the actors playing the noblemen and clowns shipwrecked on the island of Prospero's exile appear only as images projected onto the set. These hologram-like figures are themselves wisps of clouds.

"La Tempete" draws undeniable strength from its technical prowess. On Anick la Bissoniere's circular set, a landscape built on Prospero's books, the real and virtual actors interact with a kind of spectral beauty. One especially lyrical effect involves the cementing of the bond between Prospero's daughter Miranda (Maude Campeau) and the ardent young island visitor Ferdinand (Pierre Etienne Rouillard). To dramatize the induction of Ferdinand into Prospero's inner circle, Rouillard is transformed before our eyes from two-dimensional image to flesh and blood -- the only shipwreck survivor who gains that status.

The application of 21st-century magic to a play so redolent of the beguiling power of the artist seems entirely on point. The problem, however, is that the impact of the play itself gets lost in the dynamic tinkering by the trio of directors: Michel Lemieux, Victor Pilon and Denise Guilbault.

Forget for the moment that the work has been translated into French, with English supertitles. The effect of all the wait-till-you-see-this-next-trick stuff is that the wizardry upstages the language and the plot. The characters, both real and virtual, are cast as mere extras in an act of pretty picture-making. As with many experiences associated with dreams, this one has a tendency to induce a yawn.

In this radically streamlined version of the play -- it's been cut to 90 minutes -- Theriault's one-note Prospero doesn't strike many sympathetic chords. His journey from anger to grace is not charted in any compelling way, and the relinquishing of his control over Miranda and Ariel never reaches any powerful climax. The casting of Brunelle as both Ariel and earthy, rebellious Caliban seems to have more meaning as a cost-cutting than theatrical device.

You're left with a painterly evening of eye-catching moments, and if some level of handsome spectacle is all that you're after, "La Tempete" will fill the bill. Otherwise, the magic of the spell is likely to wear off much too quickly.

The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, translated into French by Norman Chaurette. Directed by Michel Lemieux, Victor Pilon and Denise Guilbault. Costumes, Michel Robidas; lighting, Alain Lortie; composer, Michel Smith. With Vincent Bilodeau, Pierre Curzi, Jacques Girard, Patrice Robitaille, Robert Toupin. About 90 minutes. Through tonight at the Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit

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