The Department of Theatre and Film has just wrapped its latest production of Shakespeare’s swan song play, “The Tempest.” This clever interpretation of the Bard’s final dramatic work was directed by department chairman Ed Lingan, who borrowed heavily from theater of the occult traditions. The magic of this Renaissance drama was effectively accompanied by Lingan’s transformation of the Center Theatre into a rotating arena stage.
The audience was treated to a 360-degree angle of enchanting spirits, creatures, spells and violent storms as this classic plot unfolded before them. Often read as a meta-theatrical reflection on Shakespeare’s departure from playwriting, the plot revolves around magician Prospero (Kurt T. Elfering) as he conjures revenge against his usurping brother Antonio (Kevin Upham), who robbed the succorer of his rightful dukedom.
Prospero’s vigilantly crafted revenge is very commonly interpreted as a reflection of Shakespeare’s own craft of storytelling. Like Prospero, his trade involved the manipulation of drama, evoking truth and beauty for his observing audience. As if to punctuate his oeuvre of theatrical works, Shakespeare made his last play ultimately a story of letting go of one’s past and moving toward a future without legacy.
With Shakespeare placing such a heavy emphasis on reflection, I found Lingan’s decision to place his version of “The Tempest” on a rotating stage especially inventive. Not only was Lingan able to visualize the occult with a giant rotating pentagram, he was also able to force his audience to consider the form of their space at every given moment. Due to the nature of the arena-stage format, there is no angle a spectator can view without seeing at least part of the audience across from them on the other side. While Shakespeare’s text preaches meta-theatrical reflection, the audience was indeed viewing a constant reflection of themselves.
This concept was subtle, clever and effective. Unfortunately, the execution of it was often inconsistent, and many of the design and performance elements of the play did not harmoniously work together.
While the stage design was thoughtful and simple, I found the costumes to be anything but. The rustic, and even satanic, tones radiating from the center-stage harshly conflicted with the glossy and colorful garments worn by the characters. Everything on stage implied dirt and grit, while everything around the stage shrieked sharp and clean. After 12 years of living alone on an island, shouldn’t Prospero adorn tattered rags?
This stylistic inconsistency carried into the performances as well. Most notably, Ariel (Kenzie Phillips) suffered the worst of this tonal flaw. As Prospero’s angsty servant, this character often works well demonstrating subtle contempt for his master. In Lingan’s production, Ariel came across as bubbly and mischievous—more of a Puck/Robin Goodfellow à la “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” than an Ariel.
Ariel’s benign but pointless presence as a mischief was annoying and exaggerated. Meanwhile, rich characters like Caliban (Faith Murphy) were completely understated—even upstaged by the less-interesting clown characters Stephano and Trinculo. At times, Stephano (David Wanhainen), who is supposed to be intoxicated throughout the entire play, over-performed so much that I believe I saw him accidentally damage a part of the stage with his boot! It often seemed more like he was drunk with cocaine than liquor.
These inconsistencies were sloppy, but could definitely be overlooked thanks to Lingan’s otherwise clever take on the classic play. This viewer left the Center Theatre feeling engaged, entertained and anxious for next season’s treasures.