Smile Politely

Here on Prospero’s isle…

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip…”

Since the setting of the play is such an important element of The Tempest, I’m going to start with a little praise for the set design. This might be an odd way to begin a review of a Shakespeare piece—after all, one rarely finds criticism of Julius Caesar that gushes about the steps or the columns—but I feel the need to set the stage, as it were. The set on which the action transpires, designed by Chad Tyler, is a marvel of green practices and a very impressive structure indeed. And yet, one can’t help but notice that it mostly resembles a very tall stack of platforms that just…kinda…tipped over, spilling in a very elegant way across the stage. But that, however simply I’ve just described it, is the beauty of the design and the execution. It doesn’t spin around or open up or reveal a hidden anything. It just is. It exists in the space as a playground, a largely blank canvas which can be transformed by the imagination into whatever it needs to be. Truly impressive.

Okay, now that we’ve built the barn, let’s put on a show….

Directing The Tempest cannot be easy, nor can performing it. It is, in all honesty, not an “easy” play.

For one thing, it has something like seventeen different plot threads going at once. That’s an overstatement, of course, but it doesn’t feel like one. This can be frustrating for an audience, especially one that might be looking for something along the lines of—oh, I don’t know—character development. Instead of true depth of feeling or a full understanding of any of the characters, we get a series of scenes that intersect occasionally and are wrapped up a little too quickly to elicit any real emotional response. It’s as if Shakespeare wrote an episode of The Love Boat. Or maybe Cannonball Run.

This might make it sound like I’m calling Shakespeare some kind of hack. I’m not. The language of The Tempest is breathtakingly beautiful in places, and the monologues delivered by Prospero—the protagonist—are thoroughly enjoyable. Especially in the hands (or rather the voice) of an actor like Henson Keys (pictured, right). The U of I professor—and chair of the acting program—is a natural for the role of Prospero. He is statesmanlike and dignified, making it utterly believable that his Prospero could be both a man of privilege in his earlier life and a master of mystical arts while in exile. He can command his surrounding area (whether an island or a theater) with his voice, and every word that passes his lips has weight. A wonderful choice of lead actor, and a fine performance indeed.

On the topic of words passing lips, it must be said that one of my hang-ups about watching productions of Shakespeare is that a cast can usually be divided into two groups: those who understand what they’re saying and those who clearly do not. A production is lucky to find itself more blessed with the former than plagued by the latter, and this production is indeed very, very lucky. There are a couple of notable exceptions among this cast, unfortunately, but I will refrain from naming those names. I remind myself, even now, that the majority of these actors are student performers who are still actively learning their craft. I take this into consideration and, ahem, smile politely.

Luckily for me, no such restraint need be employed when praising those performances that I found especially compelling. Among these, of course, is the aforementioned Henson Keys, whose Prospero commands the elements through his emissary, Ariel, and seeks to confront his traitorous brother and pair his daughter with a young nobleman. This is a tough day at the office for anyone, but Keys’ Prospero is a steadfast presence—firm when he must be, benevolent when he can be, and always thinking two moves ahead in this game of human chess.

The object of Prospero’s disapproval, most often, is Caliban, the half-human brute whose mother Prospero supplanted as ruler of this island. Caliban, who considers himself the rightful inheritor of the island (and with good reason, frankly), is a monster. His mother was a witch, he is foul in manner and odor, and he has attempted to force himself on Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. Played by second-year MFA student Thom Miller, this Caliban is a whirlwind of coiled rage and comic outburst. Miller’s facility with Shakespeare’s language is spot-on, and his presence is only enhanced by the impressive physicality of his performance. His Caliban is pathetic, as he veers from frustration under the yoke of Prospero to a fragile alliance against his master with two drunks who survived shipwreck, but the audience never loses sight of the animal within the man. He is primal, verging on primate, and it is a sight to behold.

At the other end of the spectrum, balancing Caliban’s earthiness with air, are the six actors who collectively portray the sprite Ariel. You read that correctly, by the way: six actors play one character, all at once and frequently speaking in unison, and never once does it seem like a gimmick. As an ethereal spirit full of devotion, mischief, and sometimes desperation, these six talented young actors manage an immense feat of artistic creation. Each actor presents just enough of a similarity to his or her fellows to achieve continuity of performance, and each actor gets to put his or her own stamp on Ariel, resulting in a multifaceted character who can be everywhere at once. Ellen Fred, Sidney Germaine, Sally Hamer, Ryan Jenkins, Rebecca Ogwal, and Brian Zielnicki–my compliments, one and all. I was never less than engaged, and, by the end of the night, I was genuinely moved.

Many other fine performances are included in the telling of this tale, performances strong enough to momentarily distract one from the fact that the plot is a little on the anorexic side. There is little in the way of comeuppance for the offenders in this play—be they the traitors who ousted Prospero in the first place or the monkey-fish monster who tried to rape Miranda and plotted to kill Prospero. In the end, forgiveness is the order of the day, with Prospero deciding to abandon his magicks and let what will be…be.

And perhaps that’s what I should do, honestly. I decided, after viewing the play on its opening night, not to rush straight home and bang out a quick critique based on my first impressions of what I saw. Instead, I chose to sit with it for a while, curious to see what stuck to my brain and to my heart. Having done that, I find myself now in a somewhat similar situation to Prospero’s. I have come all this way, cultivating all of these thoughts, harboring a few disappointments and outright dislikes, but I have arrived at my end and all I truly want is to be kind. I do have my quibbles, of course, and I’ve alluded to a few here, but this production is, overall, quite solid and well worth a visit to Krannert Center.

[gallery tempest_slideshow]

all photos by Wes Pundt

Related Articles