There’s a long-standing belief in the theatrical world that William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is a cursed play, one that’s so unlucky that simply uttering the title inside a theater is thought to bring about doom. Maybe it’s silly superstition, but it’s possible that Spokane’s Civic Theatre sort of believes in it: They staged “Macbeth” in February 2001 and haven’t touched another Shakespeare play since.
It’s 13 years later (superstitions be damned!) and the Civic is dusting off another of the Bard’s classics, with “The Tempest” set to open tonight under the direction of the technical director David Baker. It’s one of Shakespeare’s more fanciful works, an epic tale of the spurned sorcerer Prospero seeking revenge on his brother Antonio, who abandoned Prospero on an island and usurped his position as the Duke of Milan.
Baker wasn’t with Civic in 2001, but he said he had expressed interest in tackling Shakespeare during the eight years he’s worked for the theater. “There was felt to be a bit of a curse, because I don’t think financially (‘Macbeth’) was very successful,” Baker said. “There was a feeling that the audience wasn’t really up for it, or they didn’t really have the personnel in terms of directors or volunteers on the stage.”
Because Shakespeare represents the pinnacle of the written word – and because his language can be so daunting – there’s bound to be a knee-jerk aversion to a community theater production of one of his great plays. But Baker approached “The Tempest” as if it were a challenge, both for himself and his audience. “From a design point of view, you can have a lot of fun with Shakespeare, with lighting and costuming,” he said. “You don’t get a lot of freedom of expression with more traditional kinds of community theater selections.”
Baker worked with costume designer Jan Wanless to create an unusual vision, something that would stand out among traditional Shakespeare interpretations, and they worked backward from an individual character design. “I was pretty adamant that my pixie Ariel (who is Prospero’s servant) was going to be on rollerblades,” Baker said, and from there he designed a dark, brooding, steampunk look for the production.
“The Tempest” is assumed to be one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote – some historians allege it’s the last – and one of the more popular analyses of the show is that it represents the Bard’s farewell to theater. It’s filled with the music, magic and melodrama typical of Shakespeare, and Baker hopes that his production appeals to Shakespeare fanatics as well as to the unconverted.
“I think some directors and actors can be sort of intimidated by his literary stature, and maybe there’s too much reverence,” Baker said. “Some people grow up thinking that Shakespeare has this solemn, flowery, poetic, speechifying aspect to it, which is not true. Shakespeare moves along at a nice clip, and it’s funny and poignant. It’s all the things you want in theater.”