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Julyana Soelistyo

Dave Chidley

Since 1962, a distinguished line of thespians has played Ariel in the Stratford Festival's various productions of The Tempest, from Ted Dykstra to Michael Therriault, but until now that list has never included a woman.

Enter Julyana Soelistyo, an Indonesian-raised American actress making her first stopover in Southern Ontario. At a mere 4 foot 10, and with a beaming, youthful face that has landed her several roles playing children, she brings a suitably spritely, nymph-like quality to the famous island servant.

Still, she is the first to point out there's more than one way to cast a spirit: We don't know what Ariel looks like, nor does it particularly matter if it's a he or a she.

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"I think in my case, I look kind of androgynous, and there are moments when I think I look kind of childlike - a spirit could have a young energy," she says, sporting a short, boyish haircut that can be sculpted into Ariel's mohawk. "You could use a six-foot-tall black guy; it could be a 4-foot-10 girl. You could cast [7-foot-6 basketball star]Yao Ming. Or Chris Plummer could be Ariel, you know?"

That said, director Des McAnuff took full advantage of the actor's small stature to craft a standout part that at times involves equal measures of Shakespeare and Cirque du Soleil. Soelistyo opens the show making a slow 10-metre nosedive toward the stage and spends much of the rest of her time floating above it. She had an extra 11 hours of specialized training outside rehearsals to learn the ropes (wires, actually), but admits it still takes her "out of my comfort zone."

She could have been easily forgiven had she opted to decline such a strenuous role and stayed closer to her New York home, especially as she got the call to the production's Big Apple auditions just as she was starting to nurse her newborn son Leon.

"I remember I bundled my newborn and I was on the subway thinking, 'I'm kind of out of my mind, but here I go.' I even handed over my baby outside the audition room," she says.

Her husband Tim Barrett - a lawyer who is taking time off to be "full-time dad" to Leon, now 10 months old, and four-year-old daughter Coco in Stratford this summer - encouraged her to seize the opportunity, especially with a chance to play beside Christopher Plummer on offer.

"When I heard it was Chris Plummer playing Prospero, I had seen his King Lear and I knew, in a different way from parenting, it would be another life-altering experience," she said.

Soelistyo also felt a distant, decades-old connection to Plummer. Growing up in Jakarta, the first film her parents took her to see at a cinema her father owned was The Sound of Music, starring a much younger Plummer as Captain Von Trapp. At the time Soelistyo didn't speak English, but remembers being entranced.

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Before long she was sent to boarding school in Malaysia, and at age 18 she crossed the Pacific Ocean to study at Oregon State University, where she attempted a triple major in French, theatre and piano. She had long held aspirations to be a concert pianist, but was beginning to have more fun, and to see a brighter future, in the theatre.

"I realized I was mediocre [as a pianist] Good enough, mediocre enough - so not good enough. And I was practising six hours and then trying to do a rehearsal of a theatre production, and then writing my papers. It was too much," she says.

So she concentrated on acting, later earning a masters degree at the American Conservatory Theatre, and has also dipped her toe into the film world from time to time. That experience stood her in good stead this past week as CTV and Bravo! filmed a cinematic version of Stratford's production to be broadcast on both big and small screens. Soelistyo's delight at having the show preserved on film is predictable, especially as she is garnering ovations nearly as enthusiastic as those reserved for Plummer.

As to whether audiences can expect to see her back at Stratford in the near future, she is coy. It's not from a lack of enthusiasm for the company or the town - she is generous in her praise of the festival and its picturesque surroundings - but rather that she is wary of counting on promises that can vanish like a spirit. It's a lesson she learned when an invitation from Steven Spielberg to appear in his film Memoirs of a Geisha fell through after the project ran up against delays.

And so she declines even to discuss what her next gig might be after her summer in Stratford, Ont., content to let an invisible hand guide her blossoming career, much as Ariel invisibly steers the noblemen shipwrecked by her tempest.

"A lot of that you leave up to the universe, and then sometimes it surprises you - like this one," she says.

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