Optimist Theatre’s Tempest interrupted by tempest
The outdoor stage was set. Jason Fassl’s lights were set to seduce. The four-piece ensemble (what, Shakespeare can’t be part musical?) primed their instruments. The “tribe” put on heavy makeup and extra seating was brought in. And so, the Optimist Theatre’s Artistic Director and director of this presentation stepped on the courtyard stage.
The current nine-show run of Shakepeare’s The Tempest is already free.
In a way, I feel I’m posting a spoiler alert here: around the time that Prospero asks spirit Ariel to call on the goddess Juno to bless the coupling he’s arranged between daughter Miranda and shipwrecked prince Ferdinand, in which giant puppets from Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre appear — the sky was aglow with lightning and the show was called before the rain came down. Again.
That being said, it was satisfying to see the 30-minute ending and know how the story went. However, a lot of the plot and subtext being nuanced by mere stage direction and lighting was lost. Actors once bellowing to the back seats were now whispering to the front row one foot away. In this reasoning, it won’t be fair to post a full review. But let’s pull apart the important interpretation of material by dramaturge ML Cogar and talk about scene-stealers anyway.
First, a synopsis of one of The Bard’s lesser performed works (yet considered in recent years to be one of the best). Tempest is a lot like the original version of Lost and is the template for many famous movies such as Forbidden Planet. A conspiracy has exiled Prospero (James Pickering), the rightful Duke of Milan, to a mysterious island with his daughter Miranda (Jocelyn Fitz-Gibbon). He’s rescued a spirit named Ariel (Angela Iannone) trapped in a tree by the witch Sycorax and now controls her and the witch’s son, a creature named Caliban (Tom Reed). Over the years he develops great magical powers.
This is where the storm begins to open Act I and brings us characters.
Antonio (Jacque Troy) is Prospero’s conniving sibling in league with sycophant Sebastian (Neil Haven). Alonso (T. Stacy Hicks), the King of Naples, is accompanied by Prospero’s former confidant Gonzalo (Flora Coker). Most of the shipwrecked mariners remain asleep, and Alonso’s adult son Ferdinand (Andrew Voss) goes missing. Where is he? Well, Prospero is magically scheming to hook Miranda up with the prince (unless he’s deemed a spy) with help from the tribal spirits. There is a hilarious subplot regarding drunken shipmates Trinculo (David Flores), Stephano (Ken T. Williams) and Caliban, but really it doesn’t affect the main story in the least — not in this adaptation anyway.
Adaptation is very important to this production. Optimist Theatre is very much Ron and Susan Scot Fry (the Managing Director), who are very involved with education in the theater arts and bringing it to diverse neighborhoods. Ron is often aligned with Milwaukee Public Theatre and the direction of this production is colored by various contributions in this vein.
Most notably, several of the male characters are women. Tempest is often held up by feminist studies because the only woman on the island is Miranda — and she has been ogled, seduced, kidnapped and hit on by everyone. In this version, Antonio is made a woman, which allows the relationship with Sebastian to be a sexual one. Ariel is also made a woman and the doomed relationship with Prospero is endearing and heartbreaking. Finally, Gonzalo is played by old Theatre X vet Coker as an elderly handmaiden, a frailty that may be endemic to the actor. Even the drunken mariner Trinculo, masterfully played by David Flores, is rendered as effeminate.
Some of the interpretation in this casting had to come from ML Cogar and Ron Scot Fry. There are mysterious but viable sessions of lines done up as song, and choreographed dance by the Tribe that isn’t in the original play but yet serve Optimist Theatre’s mission. Alverno theater instructor and local stage mainstay Tom Reed is lithe and tattooed as Caliban, and brings a great read to the part. Ken T. Williams steals his role, furthered by the allowance of breaking with the usual couplet in service of having the audience understand the jokes through witty prose. Jason Fassl’s simple but elegant lighting grows as the evening gets dark but mostly goes unnoticed until a subtle shift indicates what mood should be felt.
There is no question that Pickering and Iannone are meant for their roles and play them almost perfectly. Again, I quantify this because of the artist’s personal interpretation. Prospero is more sympathetic than anti-hero, and Ariel is more elegant and damaged than manipulative and vengeful. Whether some of this to due to Optimist’s direction or the all-star team’s individual drives is unknown. One of the great merits of this production is how many different stage and community members got together to make this happen. With the nature of The Tempest being ensemble, the storyline fractured by sub-plot, and the production adapted for the entertainment value — anything can happen.
Life-altering storms not included.
Optimist Theatre’s outdoor production of The Tempest continues this weekend and next (June 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, 26, and 27 at 8 p.m. with an additional matinee June 25 at noon) at the Alverno College Courtyard, located halfway up the 43rd and Morgan side of campus. RSVP is highly recommended given the limited space, and other events plus food take place before the show. Visit this website for details, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to save your place.