IU’s Tempest is “Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On”

Shakespeare’s The Tempest has always been a favorite of mine both as a lover of plays and as a teacher of dramatic literature. Why? That’s easy. It’s full of beauty and magic. Prospero brings to life an “insubstantial pageant” in which he creates “the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself.” He is the playwright of his own performance, and this performative layering utilizes and embodies the magic of theater in ways that Shakespeare excels over the majority of other playwrights. By tapping into new art forms and technologies, the IU Department of Theatre and Drama delivered the beauty, artistry, and magic I would expect…nay…demand of a production of The Tempest.

The most unique aspect of the play was Ariels’ aerials; the character of Ariel, Prospero’s spritely servant was not portrayed by one good actor but by three: Athena Kopulos, Courtney Relyea-Spivak, and Emily Rozman. Having three Ariels intensified the character’s mystic and ominous presence, especially in the scenes where Ariel condemns and threatens Prospero’s enemies. In these scenes, Ariel was reminiscent of mysterious and frightening witches from Macbeth. Yet, through the use of aerial silks, the Ariels also flitted and floated about like airy spirits. Ariels aerials added an extra level of beauty and grace to a play known for indulging in theatrical magic. The Ariels purposefully manipulated the silks to cause certain effects. Sometimes they would wrap themselves in the silks as if bound or hiding; they also used the silks to simulate wings or represent airy flight. They climbed, tumbled, and flew over and across the stage.

Prospero’s magic and Ariels’ mysticism was enhanced by the use of creative video projection used to show the swells of the storm, Ariel’s tree prison, Ariel’s harpy-like wings, and the pageant of the goddesses. I’m not a Shakespeare purist by any means, but I do worry sometimes that all of these bells and whistles take away from the content of the play. Thankfully that was not the case with IU’s production. The aerial silks and video projection created a wondrous vision that added to the magic of the play as a whole instead of detracting from it.

The play was held together by a fantastic group of actors. All of the aerial silks and video projection in the world are nothing without the actors. Matthew Murray proved his command of the stage in his depiction of Prospero. His Prospero was young, active and vibrant. While this youthful depiction complicates Prospero’s self-acknowledged preoccupation with his own death; it does make the character timeless while he controls his magic and the island. Erin Logan brought a refreshing innocence to the character of Miranda, but yet it was an innocence tempered and shaped by a strong will. She and Devin May (Ferdinand) had fantastic chemistry. While that romance can be seen as tainted through Prospero’s manipulation, these two made the relationship seem pure and loving. Through the comedic talents of Abby Lee (Stephano) and Tara Chiusano (Trinculo) this production brought great deal of humor in the play.

Having said this, I did find myself left wanting. The beauty of Shakespeare is in his language, and while all the actors spoke and acted well, the language felt a bit hollow. Part of the issue was that I was sitting close to the back of the theater, so it was hard for me to hear the bard’s words. More than placement, I feel like the performance itself kept things a little too light, a little too happy. In IU’s production, Prospero came off more like a kindly wizard than the manipulative tyrant and dangerous sorcerer present is Shakespeare’s text. The softening of Prospero’s threatening nature subtracted complexity from the performance.

In that same attempt to keep the production lighthearted, Caliban’s characterization suffered greatly. Since the rise of post-colonial scholarship in late 70’s, Caliban’s character has typically been a representation of the post-colonial slave. Caliban represents the attempts to educate and tame the “savage islander.” Post-colonialism does not justify Caliban’s desires to rape Miranda and murder Prospero, but they become a bit more understandable. In this production, Caliban is portrayed by Ashley Dillard, a young Caucasian woman. I knew this prior to the show, and it made me worry. The costuming and makeup hid both her gender and her skin color, so she was made to fit the role. While she acted the part well, her portrayal used an accent that I can only describe as vaguely islander, and it, with some of the directorial choices, muted Caliban’s racial complexity and made him a farcical stereotype of the non-western savage with a penchant for drinking. I will not deny that this may be exactly the depiction Shakespeare was going for when creating Caliban, but I think it is a depiction that should not be welcome today, especially with the rise in instances of racial hatred.

Overall, though, I think IU’s production of The Tempest is a beautiful representation of the magic theater can perform. I highly suggest that you check out this unique production before it goes away. The Department of Theater and Drama will be performing The Tempest from now until March 4. Check out their website for show times and ticket prices.

2 thoughts on “IU’s Tempest is “Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On”

  • March 2, 2017 at 8:33 pm
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    I really enjoyed this review and agree with a lot of it, but boy, you missed the mark on your comments about Caliban. You seem to be suggesting that because a certain modern scholarly interpretation of the character is widespread, every contemporary production should subscribe to that directorial choice, which is a bit absurd. So many productions have made a post-colonial statement about Caliban that that choice feels easy and tired. Does it make a lot of sense and work well with Shakespeare’s text? Yes! Is it the only valid decision when mounting the production? God, no! In Twelfth Night, many modern directors will make the homoerotic nature of Antonio and Sebastian very explicit. Does that work well? Often, yes! Is it the only valid choice? Definitely not.

    I found the depiction of Caliban in the IU production the most interesting, complex part of the show. There was a seething, victimized anger in the character that was a nice foil to the lightness of the show. Having a female play the role (as a male character, they kept all of the masculine gender pronouns in that case) was an interesting statement about women’s marginalization in our current political climate. I’m not sure if that’s what they were going for, but it certainly made me think about the part in a new way.

    I think it’s a critic’s trap to cling to directorial decisions that have been made in previous renditions of a work, and to respond to the production you wished you had seen instead of the one you did.

    Reply
    • March 14, 2017 at 4:32 pm
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      Thank you for your response. In many ways, I completely agree with what you are saying. You are absolutely right that there is no one way to read Caliban, and if I implied that, it was not my intent. Rather I was inciting the post-colonial approach to stress the need for sensitivity when dealing with characters like Caliban, a sensitivity I felt (at the time of writing) was lacking in the production. As of now, I still wouldn’t say the production was necessarily sensitive to Caliban’s issues. The main reason being that while the actress may have shown “a seething, victimized anger,” Prospero seemed too kindly to be at fault. The balance between the two was off, and so in this production Caliban seemed to teeter on the edge of beastly for the sake of being beastly than for the sake justifiable revenge. Also, the production was so concerned with being pretty, that monstrous Caliban almost disappeared in all the pretty. That bothered me.

      As for the “critic’s trap,” I agree with you wholeheartedly that we should not go into a performance expecting any one kind of performance. While it is terrible to “respond to the production you wished you had seen instead of the one you did,” there is nothing wrong with having standards by which to judge a performance. I tend to go into a play and performance open to new and interesting interpretations. I am not stuck on any one production or production style, especially not for Shakespeare. His works are so open to possibility and experimentation, and I hope that all the productions I see include new and interesting takes on his stories, characters, and themes. IU’s Tempest was a successful experiment in so many ways, but for me, it fell flat in the case of Caliban.

      A final note, sorry for the delayed response to this comment. It got filed away with the spam messages.

      Reply

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