Optimist Theatre: “The Tempest”
At various times Milwaukee has had free professional theatre; Shakepeare (quite a lot); and outdoor theatre, but to my recollection we have not had free Shakespeare “in the park” before. This changed with the Optimist Theatre production of The Tempest which was performed not actually in a park, but on the grounds of Alverno College near us.
For the first major production of a new theatre company, The Tempest was a remarkable artistic collaboration, pulling together as it did James Pickering, the dean of Milwaukee’s theatrical community; Angela Iannone, one of our premier leading ladies; a number of other very experienced actors; and resources such as those of the Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre, which created some of the “special effects.”
Although philosophically and linguistically dense, The Tempest is actually a good Shakespeare play for a production using minimal resources: other than the storm at sea in the first scene, the rest of the play is set on Prospero’s more or less desert island, with even the interior of Prospero’s ‘cell’ and the bog Ariel leads Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo into off stage. The cast is small by Shakespearan standards, and costume changes minimal. The show was staged on a layered platform with no set pieces. Instead, setting was supplied by “The Tribe”, actors who represented the host of spirits at Prospero’s command and who became winds, waves, trees, and rocks as needed. In the storm scene, ‘thunder’ was creatively suppled by the beating of Tribe feet on the stage platform, which not only sounded good, is quite appropriate when knowing that it is these spirits who are actually making the storm.
Pickering as Prospero was a sturdy and commanding presence most of the time, but showed us many human sides to the wizard. He is angry and bullying when commanding both Ariel and Caliban; mischievous when spying on Miranda and Ferdinand; and when he kisses “dear Ariel,” it is implied that not all his fleshly appetites have been laid aside, and that Ariel has served him in other ways than just flying hither and yon.
Angela Iannone’s Ariel is a strong, graceful and sensual presence. She can flash her eyes and teeth in a most feral fashion, reminding us that Ariel is neither human nor civilized by our standards.
Tom Reed created a brutish Caliban by means of simple makeup, expression and stance that was quite effective, but played more for humor than anything else. This Caliban, while good in context, never seemed to be really dangerous, nor was there any particular pathos in his speech describing how Prospero stole his birthright from him. It must be said, however, that the scenes with clowns Trinculo (David Flores) and Stephano (Ken T. Williams) were as funny as any “Tempest” production I have scene.
Jocelyn Fitz-Gibbon gave us a bright, charming, and sparky Miranda, with a couple of enjoyable “Pippi Longstocking” moments in her interactions with Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples. Andrew Voss as Ferdinand was handsome and princely, and acted well in response to the many strangenesses of the enchanted isle.
The ‘heavies’ were well represented by Jacque Troy as ‘Antonio’, Prospero’s treacherous sibling; T. Stacy Hicks as Alonzo, King of Naples; and Neil Haven as Alonzo’s suggestible brother, Sebastian. Hicks showed as much genuine grief at the presumed death of his son as any Alonzo I have seen. Making the character of Antonio a woman in the script (references to “brother” were changed to “sister”) made Antonio’s corruption of Sebastian a physical as well as spiritual seduction that worked perfectly well with Shakespeare’s text. Flora Coker rounded out the principals as ‘Gonzalo’ and played the ethical nobleman well. ( ‘Gonzalo’ wears skirts but carries a sword; ‘Antonio’ wears pants but carries only a dagger. These choices puzzled me and seemed one of the few flaws in the production.)
The Tribe was fast, flexible, and effective in their functions, including manipulating the masks and puppets. I have some reservations about the mask used to represent Ceres and the puppet of Juno supposedly conjured by Prospero as a masque in honor of his daughter’s betrothal; while amusing, their primitive aspect seemed too literal, as though we were seeing a ceremony by South Sea Islanders (whom the Tribe vaguely resemble) instead of spirits.
The play was further enhanced by live incidental music from the “Full Fathom Four”, an ensemble comprised of piano, two violins, and woodwind, who also did some sound effects.
As with any outdoor production, “Mother Nature” is a player whether you want her or not. This evening, predicted showers held off, and, as the evening drew into night, the stage lighting illuminated wisps of falling dew, such that some scenes were furnished with artistic drifts of mist, which only enhanced the experience.
We definitely hope that this project proves sufficiently successful to carry on into future years.