Burns and Cane Review “The Tempest” at Shakespeare & Company

The Tempest swirls around Prospero/a (Olympia Dukakis). Kevin Sprague Photos.

Review: The Tempest at Shakespeare & Company
by Gail Burns and Roseann Cane

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Gail Burns: More and more people I talk to tell me that “The Tempest” is their favorite Shakespearean play, and I have to say that it has become mine too. This may be a process of aging, or it may be that this is just the perfect Shakepeare play for a modern audience. It combines everything we love about the Bard in just the right measure – family drama, clowns, power struggles, fairies, young lovers. Everything is proportionate and, as they say about the weather, if you don’t like it, wait a few minutes and it will change.

Roseann Cane: This season Shakespeare & Company is presenting two Shakespearean plays that center on powerful, mature, complex characters: “King Lear,” which we both loved, and now “The Tempest.” Director Tony Simotes has set the play in an “island somewhere in the Mediterranean, circa 1939,” and he has cast renowned actress Olympia Dukakis as Prospero, or Prospera, in this case.

Although Prospero has been feminized before—most recently, by Helen Mirren in the 2010 film adaptation—this was my first meeting with Prospera. For the sake of clarity (at least my own!), I’ll refer to the character as Shakespeare named him/her, Prospero, in our discussion.

Gail: I too prefer Prospero to refer to the character, but I am fascinated by the gender switch, which has also been done on the big time stage by Vanessa Redgrave and Blair Brown and undoubtedly many, many times in less well promoted productions.

If I could choose a force in the natural world to equate to the unleashed fury of a woman it would be a tempest. Men like Antonio and Alonso would have no trouble usurping a woman’s power, we have seen men do it, or at least attempt to do it, very publicly and very recently. And a woman would be so much more likely than a man to allow herself to be banished and lie quietly, waiting and plotting her revenge, and then to decide that that “revenge” should follow a constructive rather than a destructive path.

Roseann: I entered the theater wondering if I’d be able to accept the feminization of such a familiar character. But not long after the play began, I decided that the idea was sensational. With all of the potential for examining the play in a different psychological context, it would indeed have been the “fresh take” described in the company’s publicity…if only Dukakis had been up to the task.

Gail: I understand Dukakis (again, for the sake of clarity because her brother, Apollo, is also in the cast, we will refer to her as “Dukakis” and to him as “Apollo Dukakis”) has wanted to play this role for a long time, and this production gave her the opportunity not only to do so at age 81, but to reunite with Simotes and actor Rocco Sisto, who plays Caliban here. Both were her students at NYU many decades ago.

Rocco Sisto (Caliban), Olympia Dukakis (Prospera), Kristin Wold (Ariel). Photo by Kevin Sprague.

Roseann: What Dukakis gave us, in my view, was a recitation rather than a characterization. I found no depth or complexity there, just a monotonous delivery of lines. Her tone was ill-tempered and bitter, with almost no variation. She seemed to be shouting rather than projecting. For the first half of the play, her enunciation dissipated at each sentence’s end, although she did speak with more clarity after the intermission.

Gail: I agree that Dukakis lacked the energy necessary to make Prospero the center of this production, but in many ways that just allowed the focus to shift on to other characters and situations that might have been overwhelmed before. This is a strong cast and a visually and aurally stunning production, with many strengths.

Roseann: From a director’s view, I can see the cast of “The Tempest” as a solar system, with Prospero as the sun. In this production, she suggested a stony meteorite, without the magnetism and gravity, heat and light that the role begs for. Prospero is what’s often referred to as a “rational magician,” but I felt no magic from Dukakis. What a pity.

Gail: It is interesting that you mention the solar system metaphor, Roseann, for that was how Eleanor Holdrige staged and Kris Stone designed the play in the Founders’ Theatre, now the Tina Packer Playhouse, back in 2001. The first year Shakespeare & Company performed at their Kemble Street campus. I have very fond memories of that production. (Read Gail’s Earlier Review Here)

Then, when the Packer Playhouse was a new toy in the Company’s hands, I loved seeing all the tricks the actors could do in the space. Now Simotes and set designer Sandra Goldmark have taken new risks with the stage, creating a subterranean lair for Caliban under the front of the thrust and using larger pieces of rolling scenery than I remember seeing there in the past. Lighting designer Matthew Adelson and composer/sound designer Scott Killian get high marks too. All the technical elements – and trust me, in this day and age sound and lighting is highly technological, mesh perfectly with the live action. Deborah Brothers has designed some lovely costumes within the confines of the 1939 setting Simotes had imposed. I particularly liked her teal-lined gray coat for Dukakis, and the Balinese-inspired costumes for the Spirits.

Rocco Sisto (Caliban), Jonathan Epstein (Stephano), Timothy Douglas (Trinculo). Photo by Kevin Sprague.

Roseann: And what a mesmerizing cast of clowns! I couldn’t hope for a more fully realized Caliban than Rocco Sisto’s magnificent monster. Jonathan Epstein’s Stephano was as deft as he was hilarious. As Trinculo Timothy Douglas was a wonderful clown. These three gifted actors brought the house down in the scenes they played together.

Gail: I loved this trio too, and I give mad props to Douglas for keeping pace with giants like Epstein and Sisto.

Roseann: I enjoyed Kristin Wold’s performance as Ariel, though there were times when I wished the actress were a bit quicker on her feet. Occasionally she felt a bit earth-bound and solid, rather than vaporous, but ultimately Wold is very appealing.

Gail: I liked her too, but I loved her when she played the role back in 2001. Time does take its toll and Wold is eleven years more earth-bound than she was. Then she literally soared.

Roseann: Ryan Winkles, as Ferdinand, is also very appealing, if a bit too chipper, but I always enjoy seeing him onstage. As Miranda, Merritt Janson is winsome and attractive, but also very tightly wound from the get-go. I yearned for some refinement.

Gail: I really enjoyed seeing Winkles play just an average guy. Ferdinand is a plain vanilla juvenile lead, and even though Winkles is a tad too old to be a convincing juvy, he was winning and believable. I love how he and his director find a way to slip a little bit of character-appropriate physical comedy into all of his roles. His turns in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Santaland Diaries” have allowed us to see him to use his physical talents at full scope, so it is fun to see them crop up in surprising place in his straight roles too. Here his Ferdinand does a meticulous, millimeter by millimeter full-body “melt” when paralyzed by Ariel. Such fun!

Janson, who I ADORED as Rosalind in “As You Like It” last season, was too tightly wound and pushing the innocent act much too hard. That’s the thing about truly innocent people like Miranda, they don’t have to try at all.

Roseann: Apollo Dukakis, as Gonzalo, gave a memorable performance, finely shaded, full of humor, and rich in depth. As you so affectionately observed in our discussion of “King Lear,” the tender examination of family lives on here, not only within the play and within the company, but with the casting of sister and brother. I suspect that makes you kvell even more, Gail.

Gail: I was truly moved at the end when Prospero kissed Gonzalo. Yeah, I was probably kvelling…

Roseann: I must say that the aforementioned setting of the production made little sense to me. To set “The Tempest” in the Mediterranean in 1939 is to ground it, to confine it in a way that is simply at odds with the very crux of the play. I couldn’t shake my associations with “South Pacific.” Don’t get me wrong—I love “South Pacific,” but it has everything to do with time and place, and nothing to do with “The Tempest.” It distracted me. And I found a bigger distraction at the end of this production. Prospera returns to Milan in 1939 or ’40? What’s her position on the invasion of Greece? Is she a buddy of Mussolini?

Gail: I found the 1939 setting so vaguely referred to that thoughts of encroaching Fascism and war never entered my head. Other than the costumes, and even they were rather nebulously early 20th century, no reference was made to Simotes choice of time period and locale.

Roseann: Despite my reservations, the Shakespeare & Company actors are so fine I’d urge theater aficionados, and especially the many lovers of this great company, to see “The Tempest.”

Gail: I think fans of Dukakis will enjoy seeing her in what may well be one of her last major stage roles. I enjoy seeing mature performers like Dennis Krausnick as Lear and Dukakis as Prospero/a, rather than younger actors with lines drawn in and gray wigs. And I hope this production encourages other actresses and directors to take this gender-bending path and explore the questions it raises about women and political power.

There were two quite young children seated in our row, and the show seemed to hold their attention quite well, although I am not sure I would really advise anyone to ask children under 10 to sit through Shakespeare. But for tweens and teens “The Tempest” with its broad clowning, charming love story, warm family drama, and magic is a perfect introduction to the Bard.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Directed by Tony Simotes, Set Designer, Sandra Goldmark; Costume Designer, Deborah Brothers; Lighting Designer, Matthew E. Adelson; Sound Designer, Scott Killian, Choreographer, Barbara Allen; Dramaturge, Catherine Goodland; Voice and Text Coaches, Elizabeth Ingram, Malcolm Ingram; Production Assistants, Adam P. Blais, Leonard Luvera; Stage Manager, Diane Healy. Cast: Gregory Boover (Sailor/ Ensemble), Thomas Brazzle (Francisco/ An Officer), Timothy Douglas (Trinculo), Apollo Dukakis (Prospera), Johnathan Epstein (Stephano), Monica Giordano (Spirit), Stephanie Hodges (Juno), Merritt Janson (Miranda), David Joseph (Sebastian), Peter Macklin (Adrian), Casey McShain (Iris), Sam Perry (Sailor), James Read (Antonio), Thomas L. Rindge (Alonso), Rocco Sisto (Caliban), Ryan Winkles (Ferdinand), Kristin Wold (Ariel), Jennifer Young (Ceres). At the Tina Packer Playhouse, Lenox, MA from July 19 – August 19, 2012. 2.5 hours with one intermission. Shakespeare & Company Box Office: 413-637-3353

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