Shakespeare is perhaps the most celebrated English-language playwright and poet, yet his work is not immediately digestible. Some contemporary students loathe reading the text itself, insisting upon No Fear Shakespeare “translations” and aged Zefirelli VHS tapes.
Live dramatic performance, however, represents most powerfully the beauty and cleverness of Shakespeare’s plays. They were, after all, written to be performed. Shakespeare’s words can seem incomprehensible on paper, but when inflected and blocked they become identifiable, intellectually and emotionally.
Last week’s performance of “The Tempest” emphasized acting over flair, developing a comfortable reverie out of a cohesion of talent. Not taking dramatic steps to recontextualize the play, director Andi Rudd ’11 instead demonstrated a clear design focus and a simple approach in execution. Several seniors worked on the play as their senior project, and the production excelled in both simple and subtle ways.
Freshmen will hopefully recall the finer points of “The Tempest” from their Freshman Studies curriculum, but for those without such study, the plot is thus: Prospero, the usurped duke of Milan banished to a mystical island, wishes to return his daughter Miranda to her proper royal status; he enlists Ariel, a native sprite, to facilitate the titular storm, and washes a boat full of the betraying royals into his magical domain. Prospero’s machinations result in the restoration of his family to power and the marriage of his daughter to King Alonso’s son Ferdinand.
Some believe Prospero was intended to be a proxy for Shakespeare, and the character rules over much of the play with strong words and clever devices. Senior Samuel Flood’s Prospero was very collected, always certain of his next move; he also proved relatable throughout the play, even in his more cruel sequences. Flood’s grasp of Prospero’s mellifluousness and his maturity as an actor helped ground the production.
Flood seemed at times to be the Zen center of the chaotic plot around him, highlighted by his meditative first scene. This characterization seems no accident, as the island bore Eastern influences in its sets and costumes designed by seniors Kat Tow and Naomi Waxman, respectively. The cloth and rings on Prospero’s magic staff recalled quandao polearms, a cherry tree loomed throughout many scenes, as did stone lanterns and forest shrines.
Even the demonic Caliban, a tortured individual whom Kyle Brauer ’11 brought to life through animalistic physicality, had a Yakuza-style tattoo of a demon, marking him as an undesirable.
Brauer’s acrobatic performance, often low to the ground, contrasted Flood’s firm, lofty carriage, providing a visual distance to complement their constant feud. In lighter scenes opposite senior Zach Garcia’s Trinculo and senior Bridget Zangs Christenson’s Stephano, Caliban gamboled with deluded glee among the drunkards.
Brian Acker ’12 and Katie Cravens ’11 fleshed out the lead romance with grace. Though neither Ferdinand nor Miranda present immense complexity in the text, their statuses as young lovebirds played innocence against Prospero’s wizened machinations. Reveling in love demonstrated their particular skill as expressive actors, developing an honest rapport onstage that others may over-sell.
The serendipitous romance and ultimate resolution of “The Tempest” both rely upon Prospero’s servant-spirit Ariel. The production’s biggest challenge to standard “Tempest” protocol was the split of the role between Nikko Benson ’10 and Erika Thiede ’11. Though such a ploy could have been gimmicky, the pair was so synchronous in choreography and tone that Ariel constantly demanded the viewer’s attention. The often humorous, occasionally terrifying unity stood in for the character’s magical powers, showmanship replacing special effects.
The play’s amicable conclusion — a reunion, a marriage, a call for applause — paralleled the finality and the triumph of “The Tempest” as a production. It was a culmination of theatre arts study, a transition into a new phase from the magical isle of Appleton, and it’s difficult to imagine a more sweeping success.