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Shelters in the Storm 

Music and blithe spirit buoy Richmond Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

click to enlarge art26_theater_tempest_100.jpg

As befits its title, "The Tempest" is a whirlwind of emotion. Like none other of Shakespeare's plays, this brilliant mash-up of comedy and tragedy churns with errant themes of love, betrayal, music and magic. It's comparatively thin plotwise, however, as if the immortal Bard decided to give himself over to the passions of the heart without undue concern for the intellect.

In Richmond Shakespeare Theatre's merry and sometimes manic production of "The Tempest" at Agecroft Hall, the calm at the center of this storm is provided by Stephen Lorne Williams as Prospero. Williams has an impressive history with "The Tempest." Thirty years ago, he played Prospero's trusty fairy assistant, Ariel, in a Royal National Theatre production opposite John Gielgud. But while Williams has the pedigree for the role, I found his Prospero a bit staid.

Ironically, it's this production's Ariel, played by the remarkable Graham Birce, who infuses significant charm and vigor into the proceedings. It is Ariel who Prospero sends off to implement the many components of his plan. Having been stranded on a lonely island for 12 years, Prospero has become an adept magician and raises a storm that shipwrecks his enemies.

Years before, they'd stripped him of his title as Duke of Milan, then set him adrift with his infant daughter, Miranda (played with delightful fervor by Liz Blake), who has since grown into a comely girl. The storm brings her a suitor, Prince Ferdinand (Matt Polson). Using his sprightly magic, Ariel brings Miranda and Ferdinand together, undermines Prospero's treacherous brother, Antonio (Andy Nagraj) and befuddles a trio of would-be assassins, led by the evil witch-spawn, Caliban (David White).

Amidst all of this, Birce moves about spryly in black Converse sneakers, plays violin beautifully, sings enchanting songs, and even walks on stilts. He's assisted by Andrew Hamm and his Foolhardy Band; their playful array of songs and incidental melodies serve as a perfect complement to the action.

There are other exceptional performances in this production: White's Caliban, for example, is memorably earthy and bitter. But ultimately it's Birce who stands out in the storm. S

"The Tempest" plays Thursdays-Sundays at 8 p.m. at Agecroft Hall through July 8. Tickets are $13-$24. Call (866) BARD-TIX or visit www.richmondshakespeare.com.

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