Audiences, artists and critics have praised various facets of Shakespeare's art over the centuries. Thursday's opening of The Tempest at PlayMakers Rep made me grateful for one in particular: his resilience.
For, despite the challenges of his texts, Shakespeare's works are pretty hard to kill. You can do just about anything to them—indeed, many directors have—and the results are still frequently quite viewable.
Set Julius Caesar in a women's prison? Yes, according to the raves England's Donmar Warehouse has garnered for its just-closed stand in New York. Put Romeo and Juliet in an all-male military school? It works: just ask local audiences who saw Joe Calarco's pensive adaptation, Shakespeare's R&J, at Raleigh Ensemble Players and UNC. Send up Henry V—literally, on a trapeze suspended above the stage? The thought-provoking result was a season highlight at Burning Coal Theatre in 2011.
From the opening moments of The Tempest, co-directors Joseph Haj and Dominic Serrand make it clear they're in experimental mode. (That development will surprise no one who caught Serrand's outré, earthy take on Moliere's Imaginary Invalid last season.) But to our horror, they direct a bearded Julie Fishell, in the role of Prospero, to squander her opening lines in an absolutely flat delivery. Then, as actors start to inhabit characters and subtext, seemingly poised behind a line of scrimmage on stage, they minimize the famous maelstrom that gives the play its name.
Odder still is that this subtle storm stays resolutely dry. PlayMakers has constructed a pool that dominates the stage space for its concurrent repertory production of Metamorphoses, but Serrand and Haj perversely ignore it throughout the greatest sea-based scene in all of Shakespeare.
For the rest, designers Jan Chambers and McKay Coble's set design suggests not a verdant island paradise or treacherous depths but the worn tile and marble of an aging European bath. If choices like these don't kill this Tempest—and for the record, they actually don't—one wonders what can.
Matters rapidly improve from such a rocky start. Once she fully gets into the role, Fishell's intriguing Prospero proves a disenchanted magus—one who, in a thankful break from a long line of such characters, is never overly impressed with his conjurings.
But we're most convinced by Caroline Strange's impassioned take on Prospero's daughter, Miranda, and by Brandon Garegnani's turn as Ferdinand, the son of Alonzo, the King of Naples. Haj and Serrand give the two some lovely water-based choreography as their characters fall in love.
As an uncanny Ariel, the spirit Prospero commands, Maren Searle is abetted by Chambers and Coble's chill, evanescent costume and Heather Fleming's wig design. And a dental prosthesis (probably a bit too pearly white) gives a strong Jeffrey Blair Cornell's lines a little extra bite as Caliban. Though the soundscapes and songs by Emma Nadeau and Ari Picker from Lost in the Trees reinforced the world, a sense of ensemble never fully gelled on opening night.
In Haj and Serrand's reading, magic may once have been a religion for Prospero, but by now he's long since realized that it's only a technology. Having seen what it can—and can never—accomplish, he's clear-eyed and over it. Even with a dazzling special effect at the close, Prospero's leave-taking is without tears; his magic is a tool released by one who knows its limitations all too well. Despite a shipwreck start and cross-gender reads that don't uniformly pay off, this Tempest leaves us with a thoughtful ending.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The bard, the gods and a modern tragedy."