A Fresh and Exciting Take on “The Tempest”

May 14, 2010, 12:16 a.m.

On a chilly Wednesday night, two students emerged from the shadows of Terman Engineering building, their bleary eyes meeting a most curious sight.

Two figures, one clad in suspenders and spectacles, the other hitching up a pair of oversized pants, wildly splashed and shrieked their way across the serene waters of Terman reflecting pool. Not to be mistaken for members of a fountain hopping expedition gone awry, these students are members of the Stanford Shakespeare Company. This weekend, StanShakes presents “The Tempest,” an ambitious production crafted by director Alex Connolly that delivers a smart blend of humor, romance and drama.

Prospero, the former duke of Milan, and his young daughter Miranda are forced to flee their country following a political rebellion staged by Antonio, his conniving brother, and Alonso, the Queen of Naples. Sent out to sea to their deaths, they land on a mysterious island. 12 years pass, and it is here the play begins. Prospero, having mastered the art of sorcery, takes advantage of a royal sailing expedition, and shipwrecks his enemies ashore.

Within the span of two and half hours, Prospero’s machinations unfold on the exotic island, a fantastical place inhabited by spirits and supernatural forces. Despite Shakespeare’s foray into the mystical, his tale remains grounded in the very human themes of imprisonment, vengeance and redemption.

StanShakes’ staging of this classic work is fresh and exciting. “The Tempest” takes place on 17 platforms, built from scratch, which stand slightly above the surface of Terman fountain. Director Connolly’s vision of nature abstract unfurls in the form of Rothko-inspired large wooden frames that house the roiling waves of Prospero’s turmoil.

The breathtaking location is used to full dramatic effect, from the background of the open night sky to the sloping hill upon which the audience rests. Unfortunately for the actors, this includes wading barefoot through the icy cold waters of the fountain.

“It’s not the step into the water–it’s the step out of the water that gets you,” laughed Mary Glen Fredrick ’12, who, as the magical spirit Ariel, has the difficult task of appearing unfazed by the elements.

A Fresh and Exciting Take on "The Tempest"And the setting was not the only inspired idea at the table–for the first time in its history, StanShakes is using a live band. Audiences may be surprised to hear the music of Andrew Bird and Beirut featured prominently throughout the play. Music directors Caroline Chen ’12 and Chris Winterbauer ’11 sifted through a large handful of music before settling on the folk rock acts. Winterbauer cited Beirut’s gypsy feel and haunting sense of isolation as the reason for the final decision, in addition to the fact that  “their music is not limited to one time period, much like Shakespeare himself.” While the music is occasionally distracting in its modernity, for the most part, it enhances the fanciful, lyrical nature of the scenes.

Questionable is the inclusion of lines from W.H. Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror” at a critical point in the plot. While it is powerful from a dramatic standpoint, highlighting Prospero’s psychological state, neither the language nor the staging translates effectively. As a whole, however, Connolly’s direction and vision is solid.

While the production is to be commended for its creativity, the heart and sheer entertainment factor stems from the actors’ quality performances. The play’s leads are natural with the material, although in drastically different ways. Michael Hammersly ’11 as Prospero is fraught with personal demons, although he maintains a regal presence all the more accentuated by the actor’s classical Shakespearean delivery. Mary Beth Corbett ’12 brings a modern sentiment to the young, naïve Miranda. It is a treat to simply watch Mary Glen Fredrick’s roving eyes–a spirit among humans, Ariel is both director and spectator to the unfolding events. The three have a wonderful chemistry that engages the audience in the beginning expository scenes.

Rounding out the audience favorites are Julia Meltzer ’10 and Geeta Persad ’10 as Stephano and Trinculo, respectively. As the primary comic act, the duo plays off one another exquisitely. Dan Strawser ’10 is to be noted also for his amusing portrayal of the optimistic, nature-loving, faithful Gonzalo.

On preparing for her portrayal of the grotesque monster Caliban, Leigh Marshall ’13 praises her role as both a challenge and a means of discovery. “Acting isn’t about putting on these layers, it’s about ripping your skin apart.”

Oddly enough, she notes, in accessing the rawest, most primal emotions required of her role, she found something that was fundamentally human. Indeed, “The Tempest” serves as a revealing reminder of the cruelty and the potential of humankind.

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