Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Tempest
by William Shakespeare

St. Thomas Early Drama in Production
February 2004

There's a very common suspicion among undergraduates that Shakespeare is famous for being famous: that in some way all the bardolatry of English departments and theatre buffs is a sort of conspiracy to pass off a fraud. After all, the jokes aren't so funny any more, and the language is verging on incomprehensible, and it's all declamation and puffery and about characters and ideas we don't care about any more. Bringing the plays to life by performing them is the most powerful way to dramatize (as it were) the fact that there really is something here, something that goes way beyond a conspiracy of teachers to fob off lessons in Elizabethan English on long-suffering students.

It's not enough, either, simply to show students the plays can be put on -- what is really sure-fire is to engage them actively in a production. The St. Thomas Early Drama in Production course is designed exactly to do this, and as such its aim is to engage students in a real -- not a read-through, not a toss-off, but an authentic, thought-through and shaped -- production for an audience prepared to be engaged. If, through this process, an audience gets the chance to experience Shakespeare, that's a double advantage.

In the case of the production of The Tempest this term, we got all that, and a number of interesting takes on the staging and characterization as well. Some examples: a Miranda (Angelique Wojcik, soldiering on triumphantly despite a leg injury) who's tough, resilient, angry, and who gives as good as she gets -- or better -- with Caliban, who marries Ferdinand on her own terms, and who's not really all that astounded at this "brave new world, that has such people in it.". An Ariel (Drew Fornier, as a very disciplined and elegant sprite) whose indeterminate gender and complicated relationship to his master, Prospero, made her (or him) even more the center of the play than usual. A Prospero (David Ingham, anchoring the production with his mature delivery) who has a kind of ironic detachment about his own role and who does not -- except at the last minute -- invite our sympathy. An opening shipwreck scene which filled the darkened aisles of the Ted Daigle Theatre with screaming, lantern-waving mariners and passengers. A transgendered pair of Milanese refugees (including the conspiratorial Sebastian, here transformed by Lori Sharpe into an aggressive Sebastiana). A "cell" for Prospero complete with a couple of armchairs and a nice comfy gas fireplace, leading us to believe that his magical powers have managed to get him well beyond the Robinson Crusoe-ish survivalist that we might have expected. A Caliban (energetically played as a sort of Gollum figure by Nick Graveline) almost entirely a victim of everybody else, including Miranda. A team of miniskirted spirits of the island performing most of the play's magic. A Prospero who is as bewildered as everybody else at the disappearance of "These our actors," who "were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air." A wonderfully ambiguous farewell kiss between Prospero and his just-freed servant Ariel.

If there were things we missed in the performance -- and of course there were -- there was, as there usually is in productions of Shakespeare, plenty to keep us thoughtfully engaged. Yes, it was sometimes pretty difficult to get all the spirits of the island off stage without reminding the audience that there really isn't much room in the wings at the Daigle. We did lose of some of the unpleasantness of the sarcastic commentary of Sebastian(a) and Antonio on the more optimistic castaways' discussion of their situation (especially the wonderfully bluff and innocent Gonzalo, as played by Dan Steeves). We occasionally wondered why characters were standing where they were, in semicircles facing the audience. We probably didn't quite figure out why Stephano (the comically drunken and boisterous Andrew Estabrooks) mistakes the cowering Caliban, and the Trinculo under his cloak, as a two-headed monster.

In the last analysis, it doesn't matter much: this was no-frills Shakespeare, and there was plenty to engage us. The complexity and richness of the script, the potential for ambiguity and clarification, the raising of the important issues of servitude and power, love and power, and poetry and power, were all there.

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