One of my articles of literary faith is that Shakespeare is the best writer who has ever lived.
A related article of literary faith is that few of my writer friends quite understand this because they think Shakespeare can’t really be understood, or play in an authentic way.
They think this because their curiosity has not survived trying to read his plays in high school and college. They blame the bard for their reading mildewed books with half-assed footnotes.
When you see a good production of any of Shakespeare’s plays, though, the experience is vital, and fun. They are called plays, after all. When performed well, the stories are not much hard work at all to follow.
Orlando Shakespeare Theater offers wonderful productions of Shakespeare that simultanously deliver some classic sense of period and also enough imaginative flair to surprise more experienced audiences. I’ve seen every one of OST’s Shakespeare productions over the last five years, and every one of them have been superior.
OST’s The Tempest is no exception.
The Tempest is one of those plays that is so conceptually weird that the stage is actually a far superior place than the cinema for showing its action. At the core of the play is the wizard, Prospero, driven to something like madness in his exile. He controls the loyal sprite, Ariel, and the disloyal beast Caliban as well. Prospero has lived his life on an island alone from any human company, except for his beloved daughter, who has grown up in the time of his exile.
When the noble relations are traveling near the island, Prospero cataclysmically affects the weather in order to shipwreck them onto his home in exile, and sets about forcing these people into undergoing trials in their survival, in the hope of gaining retribution for his betrayals, and a reconciling with his family. The Tempest is known as a problem play, for it feels as dark and wrenching as a tragedy, even if it has some moments of slapstick hilarity, as well as the marriage plot ending typical for comedies. Making the tone of the play seem natural is a great accomplishment.
As usual, the acting from OST’s players is superior. Richard B. Watson makes a formidable Caliban, animalistic, barbaric, yet vibrantly human. John P. Keller is delightful as the alcoholic butler, Stefano, well-matched with an equally crapulent Brad DePlanche as Trinculo. Dameka Hayes is a compelling Ariel, otherworldly, balletic, yet intelligent, and somehow the conscience of the play. Gracie Winchester as Miranda renders the love story of The Tempest wonderful, along with Brad Frost as her suitor, Ferdinand. Greg Thornton brings a noble gravitas to the role of the wizard, Prospero. Joe Vincent adds just the right amount of pathos as Gonzalo. And Lisa Wolpe, as the treacherous usurper Antonia, extracts exquisite humor as a self-satisfied villain, yet with a few subtle gestures manages the transformation of profound contrition. The Tempest is a difficult play, in all its bizarre modulations of emotion, yet this production by Anne Hering finds the psychological logic perfectly, as if it were a straightforward play.
I don’t want to reveal too much about the staging and effects that OST uses to make The Tempest feel like a tempest, how OST makes Ariel seem like a multi-dimensional being. I need to leave some surprises intact. But Orlando Shakespeare Theater is a blessing upon our town, and you owe it to yourself to get out to see a show. Tickets are only slightly more than the cost of going to a movie, and this particular theatrical experience, unlike most movies, is unforgettable.
Production photos by Tony Firriolo.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.