Jennifer Pennington & Abigail Bailey Maupin in The Tempest. Photo: Zachary Burrell

The Tempest

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Matt Wallace

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2024 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

The Tempest has always been one of my favorite of William Shakespeare’s plays. Believed to be his last and unfinished, it dances along a revenge plot that never seeks a “pound of flesh” and incorporates magic and non-human creatures as assuredly as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In his new production, director Matt Wallace has changed the gender of the main character, Prospero, to a woman, Prospera. 

Prospera has been done before, most famously by Dame Helen Mirren in director Julie Taymor’s 2010 film. That version was generally not well-received, although Mirren’s performance was championed more than Taymor’s overwrought staging. I’ve been a Mirren acolyte since I was 17 when I watched her play Rosalind in As You Like It on the BBC so I loved it.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust provides this opening summary of the plot: “Prospero uses magic to conjure a storm and torment the survivors of a shipwreck, including the King of Naples and Prospero’s treacherous brother, Antonio. Prospero’s slave, Caliban, plots to rid himself of his master, but is thwarted by Prospero’s spirit-servant Ariel. The Queen’s young son Ferdinand thought to be dead, falls in love with Prospero’s daughter Miranda.” 

Jennifer Pennington is one of the strongest theatre artists working in Louisville. As an actor, she can be suitably grand, but she is especially adept at exploring the inner core of her characters with great subtlety. So here we find a matriarchal Prospera, in which the mother-daughter relationship with Miranda runs deeper than if a father had raised the girl on an island against great odds. In the end, when Pennington positions herself for her final speech, speaking directly to the audience, she settles herself onto a rock with great, weary resignation, a gesture known to every woman who has watched her progeny leave home to begin their own journey.

Rest easy if that suggests pre-feminist, traditional “family values” ideals. Wallace gives us a bracingly contemporary Tempest in which the directorial choices fall into place with taste and intention. 

As Propsera’s first scene winds down, the outdoor stage is caught in the gloaming except for one platform stage right lit by the last direct sunlight of the evening. It is into this spot that Neill Robertson’s Ariel makes a striking entrance. Sylphlike and otherworldly, Robertson floats around the space, untethered to Terra Firma, a sepulchral expression from a gifted actor with an uncommon physical dexterity. 

But this Ariel is not just Prospera’s servant or even the extension of her magical powers. Robertson’s vivid creation comes off as the true source of the power, marshaling three ashen Spirits, and in one especially bold but startlingly simple piece of stagecraft, brandishing a pair of giant wings.

Propspera’s other servant, the foul Caliban, is depicted by Gregory Maupin as a sea monster akin to anomuran decapod crustaceans such as hermit crabs. It feels surprising that I’ve never seen it done this way before, and most often Calliban is molded from earthen clay as a feral, mammalian brute. Yet when the clowns of the piece, Stephano (Justin Jackson) and Trinculo (Mollie Murk) describe their first comical encounter with it, they explicitly describe it as fish-like. Instead of the brute, Maupin gives the pitiable soul majesty even while its integrity is in question. 

In the hands of these three capable actors, this scene is a comic delight, beautifully executed to exploit every laugh and pratfall. I’ve never seen it done better. The remaining ensemble members are all in fine form as well. Abigail Bailey Maupin is a solid, authoritative Alonza, a second reversal of the patriarchy. Let’s face it, she could just as easily play Prospera (or Ariel). She is joined by Jon Huffman as Gonzalo, who played Prospero the last time Kentucky Shakespeare mounted The Tempest in Central Park.

All of which is to say that the 2024 Kentucky Shakespeare Festival company is an embarrassment of riches. The youngest, Jennifer Reyes, is a lovely and child-like Miranda (Miranda MUST be child-like), and veteran Kyle Ware is villain enough as the usurping Antonio to make us question Propera’s forgiveness.

Donna Lawrence Downs dresses everyone marvelously, but the Caliban costume easily wins the prize here. Eric Allgeier delivers nifty sets, the lighting is from Casey Clark, and Laura Ellis’ sound design is a marvel, including musical styles from Brigid Kaelin ranging from sea shanty to Progressive rock much of which are songs that provide unexpected tonal notes and were recorded with found objects. Most often it is Neill Robertson singing and during such moments in his Ariel make-up and costume, he conjures Ziggy Stardust period David Bowie.

So far July is proving a bit moderate – the night I was there, July 6, the air was clear and cool and a slight breeze moved through Old Louisville! 

It is impossible not to see the parallels between The Tempest and the truth of this being my final review for I would never equate my experience with Prospera’s, but the turning point in life and the laying down of specific responsibilities is undeniable. Prospera’s openness to compromise, the grace to accept human failings, not to mention that weary resignation, all resonate with me.

Perhaps ultimately Prospera is a fantasy that we all can identify with. The ability to overcome exile and disenfranchisement by seizing control of our destiny and then to be able to relinquish all of the gains with faith in the universe to take care of things after that. It’s almost impossible to believe, but we can only hope. 

Featuring Claire Eisenback, Tajleed Hardy, Imani Elise Hatchett, Brian Hinds, Jon Huffman, Justin Jackson, Georgette Kleier, Tom Luce, Abigail Bailey Maupin, Gregory Maupin, Mollie Murk, Jennifer Pennington, Jennifer Reyes, Kimberley Reyes, Neill Robertson, Krystal Waller, Kyle Ware, Nick Wills, & Crystian Wiltshire 

The Tempest

Part of Kentucky Shakespeare’s Festival in Central Park 

July 5-7; 9-14; 18, 21, 25, 28 @ 8:00 pm

Romeo and Juliet returns July 17, 20, 23, 26
A Comedy of Errors returns July 16, 19, 24, 27 

Kentucky Shakespeare
C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater
Central Park in Historic Old Louisville
1340 South Fourth Street
Louisville, KY 40208

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM /, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music, and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for