I have seen a fair number of Shakespeare plays altered by directors in my day, from modernizations to setting/era changes, and the main thing is that the alterations have to successfully illuminate the material in an original way or they fail. So when I read that a new production of the Tempest by Antaeus Theatre was going to highlight the music referred to in the text, I was trepidatious. I shouldn’t have been. This show brims with high energy and joyful creativity and is a complete delight. Better than that, however – this production is not just great; it’s interesting.
Former duke of Milan, Prospero (Peter Van Norden) was wrongfully ousted from his position via court treachery and with his infant child in tow was sent out to sea. What the court doesn’t know is that Prospero and child survived and thrived on an island due to his knowledge of magic and the assistance of the spirit Ariel (Elinor Gunn) and the grudging help of the bestial Caliban (JD Cullum). Decades later, those responsible for Prospero’s exile are sailing nearby and he causes a shipwreck to bring them to the island. His daughter Miranda (Anja Racić), now a young woman, is smitten with one of the new arrivals: Ferdinand (Peter Mendoza). Now that Prospero has all of his enemies in one place, the question becomes whether he will exact vengeance.
Van Norden is a notably accomplished Shakesperean actor; his Polonius in Antaeus’ recent production of Hamlet is the best portrayal of that role I’ve ever seen. His take on Prospero emphasizes the more intellectual aspects of the character, appropriately enough for a scholar, and he delivers his big speeches with admirable clarity and appreciation for the beauty of the language. Gunn is a lively Ariel, and her singing voice is simply lovely. Racić excels and is thoroughly convincing as Miranda, but Mendoza seems a bit too twitterpated in a cutesy way as Ferdinand. Cullum is very good as a hippie version of Caliban – a sort of island Wavy Gravy – and Adrian LaTourelle is hilarious as the drunken, ego-tripping butler Stephano.
Nike Doukas’ direction is clever and audacious and works on multiple levels. The first and most important level is that this production honors the basic play very well, although it may be appreciated more by audiences already familiar with the material who can enjoy all of the stylistic changes. The second level is its vibrant musicality, from John Ballinger’s perfectly judged compositions to the onstage musicians and the deft reworking of the Bard’s poetry into songs. The third is its staging. There is no backstage, which accentuates the theatrical nature of the event, and the effective use of Foley sound effects demonstrates how the magic is created from this group of artists in real time.
This next paragraph includes some spoilers for the production:
I found all of these changes to the play to be intriguing, but the one that moved me the most was that of its treatment of Caliban. Some productions emphasize his past transgressions more, but here he is treated more kindly, more sinned against than sinning. As he points out, he’s been a native of the island longer than anybody, and Prospero has essentially turned him into a slave. There’s a splendid moment before the intermission in which Prospero raises his hands as if conjuring his magic, and the music and sound effects rise to a crescendo. Later in the play, Caliban tentatively tries the same thing, and the magic works for him, too, as if he too is attuned to and accepted by the island. This is why in this production, when Prospero forgives everyone at the conclusion, and forgives Caliban by giving him his staff, it’s a powerful moment. I’ve never seen any other production of this play do this, and here they’ve done it without altering the text. Everyone deserves forgiveness, and with this change I think they actually may have improved the play a small but precious amount. It’s a lovely thing.
In a time in which theater is facing serious challenges, an ambitious show such as Antaeus’ superb production of The Tempest should be appreciated and supported more than ever.
Don’t miss it.
The Tempest is presented by Antaeus Theatre Company at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center and plays through July 30, 2023. Tickets are available here.