RSF's "The Tempest" rages at Fulton Hill Studios. 

A Stormy Sensation

Shakespeare packed just about everything you could want in a play into "The Tempest." And whatever the great bard left out, the Encore! Theatre Company has valiantly endeavored to put in with its second offering in this year's Richmond Shakespeare Festival.

The enchanting production now playing at the Fulton Hill Studios is full of magic and music, with just a touch of mayhem. A multitalented cast expertly renders the various moods of the show, which careens purposefully from tragedy to comedy, with many stops in between. If things get a little rough around the periphery, the core of this production is rock-solid and sensational.

At the center of "The Tempest's" storm lies Prospero (Foster Solomon), the former duke of Milan who was ignobly banished from his homeland and shipwrecked upon a deserted island with his young daughter, Miranda (Adanma Onyedike). Now, 12 years later, he has mastered powerful magical arts and uses them to bring his old enemies to him, including his double-crossing brother, Antonio (Robert James Hendricks). With the help of his trusty fairy sidekick, Ariel (Susan Sanford), Prospero sets in motion a complex series of events that result in a marriage for his daughter, a return to power for him, and the humbling of a malevolent semihuman, Caliban (Larry Tobias), to boot.

Prospero is a complicated guy, driven by revenge but also a humble scholar and a devoted father. Solomon confidently captures the many facets of this magician's personality, sometimes switching from playful to punishing with whiplash-inducing speed.

While Prospero represents the triumph of reason over fury, Caliban is his opposite, a brutish son of a witch who has eschewed all efforts to tame his savage nature. Tobias throws himself into this role masterfully, exceeding even Solomon with the depth of his fervor. Sanford, playing the loyal sprite who flits between these two extremes, makes her Ariel dutiful above all else. But the actress's triumph is the discreet revelation of the passion underlying Ariel's service.

Many other skilled actors do fine work in support of the central crew. Donald Winsor and Steve Wannall, in particular, provide hilarious comic relief as a pair of drunken oafs. Only a few performances are less than excellent: Brendan Hoyle is a bit tepid as Miranda's suitor, Ferdinand, and Onyedike lends little more than an engaging enthusiasm to Miranda. Therefore, the romantic scenes are pleasant but never stirring.

More than previous RSF efforts, this is a delightfully noisy show with director Grant Mudge filling many scenes with a pervasive music. Cello, flute, violin and drums all resound at various times, the melodies ethereal but grounded by persistent percussion. Loveliest of all are the voices: Sanford ably assisted by Lauren Holland and Cynde Liffick. The cumulative effect is a production infused with a dreamy, sometimes eerie, atmosphere.

Fulton Hill Studios, with its broad lawn overlooking the city, proves a fine substitute for RSF's Agecroft Hall digs. More than the esthetics, the new venue's indoor performance space proved most important at the preview performance I saw: Threatening weather sent us inside at intermission. But whether enjoyed inside or out, this "Tempest" is the most stirring breeze to blow through Richmond in a long time.


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