The Island was the main setting of the 2000s-decade JJ Adams tv show LOST. It didn’t have a name. Groups of attractive castaways found themselves on its shores, explored, encountered mysterious others, and were threatened and assisted by unexplained supernatural phenomena. And the 5-season series had an epilogue or attempt at explanation that I never did understand.
And so, Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Un-named island. Old castaways, new castaways split up in the crash, magic and supernatural elements, backstory and old enmities, and a quick wrapup that I wasn’t quite sure about.
Until this weekend, I don’t think I’d actually seen a full production of The Tempest anywhere. I’d known something about it because of references in other stories, notably the children’s book Roller Skates (Ruth Sawyer’s 1937 Newbery Medal winner) and the Robertson Davies classic Tempest-Tost and more recently John Lazarus’s play Rough Magic. I’ve read the play, I’ve seen part of the movie version with Helen Mirren as Prospera (it’s on Netflix), and I’m familiar enough with it to recognize the same plot used in Forbidden Planet (the 1956 science fiction film mentioned in the Rocky Horror Picture Show theme song).
The production I saw this weekend was at the University of Alberta, directed by Ian Leung and featuring the actors of the penultimate year of the BFA Acting program. (It’s got performances today, Sunday at 2pm and 7:30 pm, if I get this posted in time.) Jaimi Reese plays Prosperine, usurped Duke of Milan, magic-user, and mother to Miranda. Miranda is double-cast. I watched both Emma Houghton’s and Sarah Culkin’s interpretations of the isolated teenager, Culkin’s more dreamy and Houghton’s more sulky, and enjoyed seeing two versions of the girl’s first glimpses of the eligible young prince Ferdinand (Marc Ludwig). The king’s (Jacob Holloway’s) wise old counselor Gonzales (Chayla Day) and the king’s sibling Bastiana (Emily Howard) were both switched from male characters of the traditional script, Gonzalo and Sebastian. Having Bastiana be female added a convincing nuance of attraction to the snickering and scheming with Antonio (Jordan Buhat), Prosperine’s usurper brother. The sequence where the two of them slouch on the auditorium stairs, muttering cynically about everything Gonzales says, was particularly good.
Prosperine has used her magic to compel two slaves, Ariel (Sarah Ormandy) and Caliban (Jake Tkaczyk), until her epilogue speech sets both of them free. Tkaczyk’s Caliban was hunched over, growling and cowering and resentful like a larger version of Gollum. I pitied Caliban and I was afraid of him and was amused by him. In his version of the story, Prosperine and her daughter had nurtured him and taught him and then later began to exploit him harshly as a slave. In Prosperine’s version, Caliban had been a trusted member of the household until he attempted sexual assault on young Miranda, and his bad treatment since then was a consequence of that. I was reminded of the colonialist/xenophobic trope of needing to protect white daughters from the uncontrolled urges of savage others. But Caliban’s salacious gesture and leer made me shudder and look away, convinced of his evil intent and unrepentance.
But the one who caught me by surprise was Ariel. Somehow, the representations I’d encountered in the past led me to picture Ariel as sort of ethereal, a graceful gowned being singing gently, the young Griselda Webster in Tempest-Tost. But this Ariel was a different sort 0f non-human. Ormandy’s portrayal never let me forget for a minute that the spirit was powerful beyond her master Prosperine, gentle only by choice, and beyond human sentiment. Her awkward postures, standing on one leg, never pointing her toes, and her blue morphsuit costume and face paint helped to place her more in the tradition of Puck than of Tinkerbell. And her singing was strikingly powerful.
Stephano and Trincula (Philip Geller and Alex Dawkins), part of the king’s retinue who get separated from the rest of the ship’s company in the cast and spend most of the play sharing a butt of sack with Caliban, are the Shakespearean version of comic relief. Their first entrances, where Trincula discovers Caliban hiding from the storm under a tarp and decides that he must be a fish because of his smell, and then when Stephano sees both Trincula and Caliban with their feet sticking out from the tarp and concludes that they’re a four-footed monster, are particularly well done. It is easy to see that students in the U of A BFA Acting program get a good grounding in the skills of clowning and physical theatre.
I loved the first scene, the choreography of the sailors and passengers aboard the ship. I have been on sailboats in rough weather (and on a tall ship in calm weather) and I found it a convincing portrayal of struggling to work and hang on as the decks lurched and the sails flapped. The simple staging customary for Corner Stage shows was sufficient to support good performances. A few well-chosen design details stood out memorably (especially Prosperine’s ornate and heavy magical cloak) as I still remember the chilling shadow of the cross on the stage floor two years ago in Merchant of Venice when Shylock is forced by the court to give up his religion and abandon his Torah. Like Merchant of Venice, some aspects of the story are uncomfortable for me as a 21st-century feminist trying to be conscious of colonialism and patriarchy (a parent’s investment in a daughter’s virginity is super-creepy, for example) but the language and imagery and character studies make it worth being uncomfortable.
Sunday April 10th, Corner Stage (second floor) in the Fine Arts Building at U of Alberta, 2 pm and 7:30 pm, admission by donation.