Offbeat ‘Tempest’ cuts scenes, reassigns genders and adds politics

Prospera (Susan Wismar, left) tells daughter Miranda (Hannah Roth) how they arrived at a mysterious island in Actors’ Theatre’s production of The Tempest. (Photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

The Tempest is thought to be Shakespeare’s last play, which has led to the theory that its protagonist, Prospero, is a stand-in for the Bard himself. When the aging sorcerer gives up his magic at the end, it’s interpreted as symbolic of the playwright’s decision to stop favoring us with the literary magic that flowed from his pen.

Less favorably, some have viewed The Tempest as a reflection of Britain’s centuries of colonialism. This criticism stems from Prospero’s domination of Ariel and Caliban, inhabitants of the island he fled to after being cheated out of his rightful position as duke of Milan.

In the “director’s statement” for the current Actors’ Theatre production, David Harewood makes it clear he’s inspired by the latter interpretation, though he’s broadened the focus to touch on our own society’s faults. Sample critique: “A profit-driven justice system routinely robs men and boys younger than Caliban of their dignity, their lives, or both…”

Harewood’s determination to bend the text to address such political concerns helps to explain why what’s going on in Schiller Park seems unfamiliar even to those who’ve seen The Tempest multiple times. Harewood even goes so far as to deep-six the happy ending by reinterpreting the final speech.

There are other reasons the work seems unfamiliar, including the fact that scenes have been cut, one character has been eliminated and others have been given gender reassignments. To wit: Prospero is now Prospera (Susan Wismar), usurping brother Antonio is now usurping sister Antonia (Kasey Meininger), and royal councilor Gonzalo is now the sword-wielding Gonzala (Wilma Hatton).

The changes work particularly well in the case of Prospera, as Wismar makes her a forceful presence even when she’s being a devoted mom to naïve daughter Miranda (Hannah Roth). The only jarring aspect of Wismar’s performance is that she’s meaner than the sorcerer normally is, especially when she’s torturing the monstrous Caliban (Christopher “Casanova” Jones). The apparent reason: to underscore her identity as a colonizing presence on the island.

Trying to survive a storm conjured up by Prospera are (from left) King Alonso (Michael Neff); Gonzala (Wilma Hatton) and Antonia (Kasey Meininger).

The other changes also work well except that they add occasional confusion about the identities of various characters and their relationships with others. But the confusion mainly arises from other factors, including sound effects that drown out much of the dialogue during the storm Prospera conjures up to bring King Alonso (Michael Neff) and his entourage to the island in an attempt to right old wrongs. As a result, many viewers will struggle to figure out who’s who when Alonso and others reappear on the shore.

About the only shipwreck survivor whose identity is clear from the start is the one the others fear has drowned: Ferdinand (Tom Murdock), the king’s son, who soon justifies Prospera’s hopes by awakening the libido of the long-sheltered Miranda. (Note: Ferdinand and several other roles have been recast since the printed program was compiled.)

Another alteration from the original is the division of the spirit Ariel into three individuals, played by the sweet-singing Dakota Thorn and Shanelle Marie and the balletically lithe Christina Yoho. This is an interesting experiment whose only drawback is that the three can be hard to understand when they speak in unison, especially since they, like Jones’s Caliban, display Jamaican accents.

Ariel times three, played by (from left) Dakota Thorn, Shanelle Marie and Christina Yoho

How, you might ask, did Jamaicans end up on an island off the coast of Italy? And why does one of them (Caliban) make an entrance while singing an American spiritual? Such questions are overshadowed after the comically drunk Stefano (Tony Ludovico) and the clownish Trincula (Heather Gorby) show up, as both speak with an Appalachian twang. Their repartee is funny, but the unexpected accent is a jarring distraction.

Though nearly everyone from Wismar on down performs well, and though some of the innovations are interesting, the overall impression is that political posturing has taken much of the fun out of what should have been a magical night at the theater.

You’ve heard of “director’s cuts” that rob films of their popular appeal? This is a like a director’s cut of The Tempest.

Actors’ Theatre will present The Tempest through Sept. 3 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are pay what you will. Bring a blanket or lawn chair; reservations for seats or keepsake blankets are available for $20. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

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Like ‘Othello,’ but with yuks and yokels

Leontes (Andy Falter, left) accuses Hermione (Kathryn Miller) of infidelity in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (photos by Richard Ades)
Leontes (Andy Falter, left) accuses Hermione (Kathryn Miller) of infidelity in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Actors’ Theatre’s production of The Winter’s Tale is, at first glance, an impressive achievement. Directed by Micah Logsdon, it creates a crowd-pleasing evening out of a play that presents thespians with a couple of difficulties.

First difficulty: After introducing an unjust charge of marital infidelity much like the one depicted in Othello (which led off the troupe’s summer season), Shakespeare then all but abandons this tragic plot as he plies us with one comic scene after another.

Second difficulty: Shakespeare eventually returns to the original tragedy by setting up a scene that promises to heal old wounds while revealing mistaken identities. But he then allows this “scene” to transpire offstage, so that we hear about it only through peripheral characters.

Facing these challenges head on, Logsdon’s production makes the most of the comic scenes by employing talents such as former Shadowbox Live performer JT Walker III. It also adds interest by relocating the action from Sicily and Bohemia to turn-of-the-last-century Sicilia, Ky., and Bohemia, N.C. This not only allows the cast to speak the Elizabethan dialogue with an Appalachian accent, but it allows a trio of “balladeers” to punctuate the action with aptly chosen backwoods tunes.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell:

King Leontes (Andy Falter) of Sicilia is hosting an extended visit from King Polixines (David Widder-Varhegyi) of Bohemia when he begins to suspect his childhood friend has been having an affair with Leontes’s now-pregnant wife, Hermione (Kathryn Miller). Becoming insanely jealous, he orders one of his lords, Camillio (Christina Yoho), to murder the visiting monarch.

Leontes orders Camillio (Christina Yoho, left) to kill his wife’s suspected lover, but Camillio has other ideas
Leontes orders Camillio (Christina Yoho, left) to kill his wife’s suspected lover, but Camillio has other ideas

When that doesn’t happen—the decent Camillio instead warns Polixines and flees with him to Bohemia—Leontes completely loses it. He throws his wife into prison despite her protestations of innocence, and after she gives birth to a daughter, he orders an underling to abandon the suspected bastard in the wilderness. Sadly, Leontes doesn’t realize Hermione is innocent until his actions have led not only to the infant’s supposed loss but to the deaths of both his wife and their adolescent son.

All of this happens in Act 1, and it’s mostly handled well in Logsdon’s production. Falter delivers too many of Leontes’s lines at a pissed-off yell, but he eventually joins other cast members in giving a more nuanced performance. Among the others, especially memorable are Miller as the wronged Hermione and Jennifer Feather Youngblood as her righteously angry defender, Paulina.

After intermission, however, the strains of dealing with the play’s challenges begin to show.

Set in Bohemia 16 years in the future, it introduces us to Polixines’s son, Florizel (a relatable Robert Philpott), and the country lass who’s won his heart, Perdita (a sweet but feisty Madelyn Loehr). In the end, it also returns to a now-contrite Leontes and supplies partial closure for the tragedy that unfolded in Act 1.

For the most part, though, Act 2 is so dominated by comic scenes that it seems to have little connection to the somber developments in Act 1. I would blame this entirely on Shakespeare’s plotting if I weren’t haunted by a wonderful production of The Winter’s Tale that I saw more than two decades ago in Schiller Park.

Brilliantly directed by Mark Mann, it managed to slog through Act 2’s comedy without losing sight of the play’s central theme: redemption. It all culminated in one of the most moving finales I’ve witnessed on any stage, ever.

Further complicating my reaction to the current show is a 2004 production of The Comedy of Errors that first introduced Columbus to the novelty of delivering Shakespeare’s dialogue with an Appalachian accent. Director Frank Barnhart and his cast not only proved that it can sound very natural, but they did it without turning the characters into backwoods stereotypes.

In contrast, peripheral characters in the current production sometimes come off as generic yokels, undercutting the play’s serious overall theme. And as for that final scene, it’s further undercut by a revelation that comes minutes too soon.

As I said, there’s much to enjoy in Logsdon’s production. Besides its achievements in acting and musicianship, perks include the lighting and sound effects with which it creates the storm that ends Act 1.

It’s what happens after the storm that disappoints me, weakening the Bard’s morality tale with a trip into Hee Haw country. The detour adds brand new problems to a script that already has more than its share.

Actors’ Theatre will present The Winter’s Tale through Aug. 7 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Admission is free, but donations are requested. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.