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Oh, The Tempest is a strange play. This multi-layered work—Shakespeare’s last—is a summation of his storied career, its lead character referencing the playwright himself. The work brims with magical situations and beautiful language. But David Stradley, director of this fine outdoors production from Delaware Shakespeare, also fully acknowledges and explores its strangeness, embracing the play’s dramatic and emotional switchbacks to create a satisfying and moving theatrical evening.
The play opens with a fierce storm, fomented by the wizard Prospero (a majestic Jolie Garrett) that casts a group of nobles ashore on a magical island. Twelve years earlier, led by his scheming brother Antonio (Alfred Lance Jr.), they overthrew Prospero as Duke of Milan. Now he reigns here with his beloved daughter Miranda (Jessica Money) and served by two minions: the generous spirit Ariel (Lexi Thammavong), who longs for freedom, and the brooding slave Caliban (Gerrad Alex Taylor), who plots to usurp his master. Prospero has gathered the shipwrecked survivors to exact his revenge.
In another revenge plot, Caliban colludes with drunken sailors Stephano (Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez) and Trinculo (Jack O’Neill) to kill his master and rule the island he considers rightfully his. Meanwhile, young prince Ferdinand (Matthew Johnston) falls in love with Miranda, but their celebrations are cut short as Prospero reveals his identity and confronts his brother. Conflicts are resolved in a happy ending, a feature of this and three more plays from Shakespeare’s final period (1608-1613) that are designated “romances.”
This is the 20th summer for Del Shakes in bucolic Rockwood Park, and the production (delayed from 2020) takes full advantage of its setting: actors emerge from the woods and fireflies compete with stage lights and glowing props. Almost without exception the company’s strong performers handle the intricate language with clarity and grace, including two understudies (in due to Covid-related absences). Garrett’s Prospero is especially impressive in the play’s extensive (and necessary) opening exposition.
Michael Hahn’s bell-like original music (played live by Spencer Scott) clearly indicates when magic is afoot—helpful in a play veering in and out of a wizardly world—and he sets several of Shakespeare’s most luminous passages as songs. The actors are clothed in garments (by Ilycia Buffaloe) that evoke a bygone era without excessive fussiness, and Amanda Jensen’s lighting clearly focuses the action in an outdoor setting rife with potential distractions.
Like his contemporaries, Shakespeare borrowed freely from many sources, here extensively from himself, reusing characters and devices. Stradley (also Del Shakes producing artistic director) understands this intimately and utilizes it knowingly, adding richness with parallels to Shakespeare’s other “magic” play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Ariel, like Puck in that play, is a mischievous sprite acting at the behest of a magical figure (Oberon in Midsummer). But in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s recycled characters are quite different. Puck is happy, while Ariel longs for freedom. Bottom is a charming ass in Midsummer, but the wronged Caliban is monstrous. And while Oberon’s revenge is whimsical, Prospero’s comes from well-tended rage and a burning desire to right the wrong that took his kingdom.
Among Shakespeare’s favorite elements are comic characters: here, sailors drunk on both salvaged wine and a ravishing taste of freedom. These are the production’s most problematic scenes; their drunkenness is darker than portrayed here. The extreme inebriation is comically overextended, though Caliban’s shrewdness emerges as Taylor manipulates the hapless duo.
Loss, restoration, and the price we pay
An Elizabethan Harry Potter, The Tempest has all the elements of good fantasy, a genre as popular then as now: wizards, monsters, fairies, obstacles, villains, a quest, love at first sight, and a heartwarming resolution. But spurred on by the changeable magician at its heart (aka the playwright) it also explores good versus evil; questions what constitutes justice; and longs for freedom from ills and bondage physical and mental. This theatrical menu is a lot for a summer production to embrace, but by the end of the play, Stradley’s company does just that and so does the audience.
Like many festivals, this one has lively picnickers and enthusiastic, voluble pre-show hijinks. But once the play begins, it was clear that this audience, focused and attentive, came for Shakespeare. They were aided by Robert McMahan’s in-the-round staging—an island of performers surrounded by a sea of watchers who are intimate with the players and one another. There was also a noticeable shift in audiences these days: the knowledge of how special it is to gather and how something that’s seemingly our right can so easily be taken away.
Shakespeare’s script ends with a disarming epilogue by Prospero, but Stradley chooses differently and concludes with uncertainty. Standing in a spotlight, Caliban is alone on the island he has longed to rule. Will he be a better master than Prospero, who spent (squandered?) years fomenting revenge and now realizes what he needs to be happy? And amid this welcome midsummer night’s adventure in beautiful Rockwood Park, we glimpse tentative happiness as well. One audience member summed it up beautifully, saying that the production’s poignant ending “echoes our sense of loss and restoration: Something may be recovered, but we always pay a price, and the process changes us, profoundly.” Shakespeare, also a wizard, knew this. It’s why we still stage his plays.
What, When, Where
The Tempest. By William Shakespeare, directed by David Stradley. Through July 31, 2022. Pay what you decide: $10, $20, or $30. Delaware Shakespeare on the lawn at Rockwood Park, 4671 Washington Street Extension, Wilmington, DE. (302) 468-4890 or delshakes.org.
Rockwood Park is in north Wilmington, off I-95. The performance area is wheelchair-accessible; it is necessary to traverse a gravel walkway and the grass lawn seating area. Bring blankets or chairs. Gates open for pre-show and picnicking 75 minutes before curtain.
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