It’s one thing for a community theater to tackle the work of William Shakespeare; it’s another thing entirely for one to tackle his epic magical comedy “The Tempest.” There are a number of reasons this particular play is a tricky proposition: It isn’t really one of Shakespeare’s more famous works, and it requires a mastery of music, broad comedy and special effects on top of its complicated language.
But the Civic Theatre, whose interpretation of “The Tempest” opened this weekend, does justice to the Bard’s words. It works best, I think, in its lengthy comic passages and as a physical production of sound and fury. Director David Baker, who’s also the Civic’s technical director, has wisely staged his version as theater-in-the-round so that the audience is as much consumed by the magic as some of the characters.
Baker has also conceived the show with a self-described steampunk look, which ends up meshing well with the fantastical themes of the story. This design choice inventively combines lush Victorian fashion with a metallic, dystopian chill, and it’s closer in spirit to, say, “Blade Runner” than something like “Shakespeare in Love.” (It also allows for the deployment of a group of magical sprites on Rollerblades.)
“The Tempest” is set almost entirely on a deserted island, where Prospero (Chris Taylor), the former Duke of Milan, has been stranded with his daughter Miranda (Natalya Ferch) for a number of years. During his time in exile, Prospero has become a vengeful sorcerer, and he employs a devious pixie called Ariel (Sarah Bennett) to do his bidding.
The show begins as a ship carrying Prospero’s brother Antonio (Bryan Durbin), who has wrongfully usurped his position as duke, is nearly destroyed in one of Prospero’s conjured storms. Prospero essentially sets the plot into motion by deliberately separating the shipwreck survivors on his island. First there’s Ferdinand (Jacob Carruthers), the young prince of Naples, who wanders away from his father, King Alonso (Peter Hardie), in a trance and falls in love with Miranda upon first sight.
Meanwhile, Antonio and Sebastian (Chris Wooley), Alonso’s brother, are conspiring to kill the king and overthrow him. In yet another plotline, which is the source for much of the play’s comedy, Prospero’s spurned servant Caliban (Preston Loomer) teams up with two crazed drunks, Stephano (Blake King-Krueger) and Trinculo (Lauralynn “Lulu” Stafford), to rebel against Prospero’s ruling over the island.
If you aren’t able to follow all of the curses and double crosses and betrayals in print, the plot comes into sharper focus while you’re watching it unfold. Part of the fun of “The Tempest” is watching Shakespeare untangle all of the story’s threads. The popular theory among academics is that Prospero is a surrogate for Shakespeare himself – he’s a domineering figure, a showman, a plotter, the author of the fates of everyone around him – and that “The Tempest” is an aging Bard’s metaphorical farewell to the theater.
What really sells this particular interpretation is the top-notch cast and production design. Taylor is the perfect Prospero, powerful and ruthless at times, compassionate and a bit fickle at others. Loomer, King-Krueger and Stafford are hilarious as the Three Stooges of the piece, leaping and tumbling about the set with reckless abandon. And Bennett is a standout as Ariel: She does as much dramatic heavy lifting as her co-stars but has to do it while zipping around the theater on Rollerblades, which recalls the adage about Ginger Rogers performing the same dance moves as Fred Astaire but backwards and in heels.
I don’t know if the Civic’s “Tempest” is necessarily going to change anybody’s mind about Shakespeare. But it does prove that the Bard’s work is not only sublimely entertaining but also surprisingly modern, and it’s as much about the spectacle of live theater as it is the beautiful words.