Claire Syler, director of Nashville Shakespeare Festival's new production of The Tempest, could hardly have dreamed of the inadvertent staging wrinkle that befell her show on its opening night, Jan. 14. The play's very first scene is a shipwreck, with the sorcerer Prospero conjuring a storm to frighten and founder a brace of sailors and noblemen. Thunder, flickering lights and clouds of fog helped to effectively bring the gale to life, when suddenly the Troutt Theater's fire-detection system reacted negatively to the overactive fog machine, setting off a loud, whooping alarm that continued until the production was halted, theatergoers were ushered outside, and Nashville firefighters arrived (with impressive timeliness).
Few Nashville winter theater seasons have been rung in with more excitement. Fortunately, once the firefighters were assured it was much ado about nothing, the Troutt audience reclaimed their seats and the company took things right from the top, sans fog. And as the remainder of the evening proved, all's well that ends well.
Syler's staging is, on balance, a charming and well-paced Tempest, benefiting from the Troutt's warm theatrical ambience, highly professional technical design and a cast that effectively mixes pros with students. On the whole, the ensemble renders the Bard with sense and sensibility while evoking the play's magical vibe, romance and human righteousness.
The latter comes courtesy of Brian Webb Russell's Prospero. It's a role he's played before, and he seems to have grown into it, providing a commanding portrayal that offers occasional irony and, ultimately, evenhanded justice.
But edging out even errant fire alarms for attention is Denice Hicks, who turned 50 years old on Jan. 7. Hicks is now celebrating her 30th year in Nashville — she arrived here in 1980 to perform as a musical comedy kid at Opryland. It's also been 20 years since she did her first show with NSF, the organization (one of many with whom she's worked) nearest to her theatrical heart. So what better way to celebrate than for Hicks to take on the role of the sprite Ariel. With the assistance of a sturdy harness and a couple of rigging lines, she spends the evening flying through the air, declaiming Shakespeare's poetry in one of his most beloved plays.
Sure, you can see the wires that fly Hicks over and across the stage, but that's OK. Evoking images of Mary Martin as Peter Pan in a famous TV broadcast from the 1950s, she gives a great performance. (Roger Benavides is the credited "flight director.")
Other notable contributions include Christiana White's studied reading of Miranda, which improved with every passing second; Andrew Krichels' choreography for a whimsical dance interlude; and an original classical guitar score by Mario DaSilva, who performs it live.
The fog notwithstanding, this Tempest quite often soars.
Samm-Art Williams' offbeat comedy The Dance on Widow's Row continues to be performed on Saturday evenings, 7:30 p.m., at The Next Level, 1008 Charlotte. The venue, formerly known as Writer's Stage, is now under the management of Barry Scott, who assumed the reins from Jim Reyland. Scott directs and co-stars in Widow's Row, an improbable but often humorous tale concerning middle-aged ladies on the prowl for new husbands. Scott promised a long run for the show when it launched in late summer of '09. It has continued essentially uninterrupted, with little fanfare, and the original cast of seven remains in place, with occasional understudies filling in. For ticket information, write email@example.com or call 579-4223.