Brandeis’ resident Shakespeare company kicked off their year this weekend with a production of “The Tempest,” the Bard’s classic tale of sorcery and power. The production, directed by Kat Lawrence ’20, brings together multiple approaches to the text to give each scene a unique energy.
The story focuses on a powerful sorcerer, Prospera (Prospero in the original version), who has been banished to a desolate island with her daughter by familial treachery. Furious at the injustice she suffered, Prospera has spent years learning how to become a master in the art of magic to take back her position. The show opens with a calamitous storm, caused by Prospera, which shipwrecks the royalty of her native country on the island with her, unaware of her plans to exact justice.
The titular tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most famous scenes and this production’s version sets an impressive standard for the rest of the show. With the boat’s crew pitching about on stage, clinging to each other, ropes cleverly manipulated to show destruction of their ship, accompanied by dramatic swells of music and dancing from the show’s spirit dancers, the show started with a true tempest.
The scene also set the precedent for the show’s heavy use of dance and movement, which played a large role in helping to keep Shakespeare understandable and underscoring the emotion of his language. The technique was most noticeable in the production’s addition of the spirit dancers, an ensemble of spirits under Prospera’s command who appeared on stage to accompany any large sorcerous feats or celebrations with dramatic dances which brought a frantic, “witches’ celebration” spirit to traditional flowing, elegant dances often associated with Shakespeare and underscored Prospera’s awesome power and the supernatural nature of the story.
The main plot follows different groups of shipwreck survivors on their journey to the all-powerful Prospera (played by Emma Johnson ’22) who controls their fates with the help of her spirit Ariel (Leah Nashel ’20). Johnson does an impressive job both as Prospera and Center of the Story; saddled with lengthy expositional speeches, she manages to remain compelling throughout and make Prospera’s transition from somewhat-controlled rage to eventual outpouring of forgiveness visible in every scene. Nashel is superb, excelling as a Puck-like mischief maker while luring people to Prospera with tempting song and trickery but keeping Ariel’s distinctive human edge always present. Ariel has always stood out in Shakespeare’s canon for her (or his in the original version) human-like affections, and Nashel does an excellent job balancing those affections with her role as a powerful force of nature given a prankster’s body. Prospera is also accompanied by her daughter Miranda, who Micaela Grimes ’22 plays as an adorably naïve but loving teen who becomes even more delightful when joined by her love-at-first-sight beau Stephen Tracy ’22, who is every bit as saccharinely adorable as she. Together, they turn their characters into symbols of the good that simple true love can bring.
The first group we are introduced to separately from Prospera is the King of Naples, Alonso, played by Harrison Carter ’22, and his retinue. The scene is largely dominated by Carter’s emotional devastation at the seeming loss of his children and country in one shipwreck, though this despair is tempered by a metallic commanding demeanor.
This group is succeeded by the comic relief of the show: drunk jester Trincula (originally Trinculo) played by Esther Shminkin ’21 and butler Stephano played by Joshua Lannon ’22. A classically funny pair, Shminkin and Lannon do an excellent job living up to the jokes given to them, embodying the hilariously misguided self-confidence which defines the characters. This confidence is amplified when they stumble across Caliban, played by Aaron Young ’22 and the only native of the island, who mistakes them for gods and asks for their help overthrowing Prospera, who has enslaved him. Young’s performance is impressive in the way he becomes laughably pitiable without becoming a caricature defined only by insults and failure.
Having set up the characters almost as chess pieces, Prospera then begins to bring them together and terrorize them through Ariel. With a dramatically winged jumpsuit from costume designer Gabriela Stahl ’21 and spookily dramatic lighting by lighting designer Noah Mark ’19, Ariel and a chorus of spirit dancers who provide a truly arresting reverb to her voice bring a hair-raising climax to the show, setting up for an emotional resolution.
The production does, unfortunately, somewhat suffer from a lack of focus between its comedic and dramatic elements. Many of the less crucial scenes are played lightheartedly and there are deliberate laugh lines, yet Prospera’s monologues are largely serious and the show has the trappings of a serious show, as with the spirit dancers. Despite the occasional tonal inconsistency, however, the show does an excellent job presenting the classic tale.