Sensation Island 

UM’s The Tempest delivers whimsy with an edge

The Tempest is about freedom, forgiveness, revenge, banishment, ambition, greed, subjugation, power, sadness, hope, dreams, longing, and loss. For all that, it can feel light and airy, almost whimsical, as directed by Joe Proctor. This UM Department of Drama/Dance production is spare and understated, yet there’s a more-than-occasional ripple of effervescence. A kind of nervous joy lurks beneath the surface—and an anxious sorrow—brought forth most often by the quicksilvery Ariel (Kate Roxburgh). Ariel starts out creepy-seeming, even malevolent, but then becomes increasingly poignant as she scurries about doing the deposed Prospero’s (Bill Watson) bidding. She casts lines of enchantment that wrap around the humans who have blundered into her magical realm, but she’s caught in these lines too, and she wants to flee.

There’s a low hum of despair throughout the play , a haunted quality that is periodically punched up by the grovelings of the miserable creature Caliban (Troy Carter), who, even with his webbed feet and hairy tufts, has a street-people familiarity. (“A thousand twangling instruments hum about mine ears,” he says, “and sometimes voices. …”) This is whimsy with an edge.

Set vaguely at the turn of the last century on a “fantastical” island, many of the scenes are dominated by top hats and tail coats, as the shipwrecked Alonso, King of Naples (Justin Bates), and his companions strut here and there, ascertaining their fate. Shakespeare’s text emphasizes how natty all these important men still look after nearly drowning: “On their sustaining garments not a blemish, but fresher than before. ...” This is island magic at work, but the turn-of-the-20th-century suits, similar to each other and all gray, also work to emphasize the sheer ordinariness of these politicians, barristers, and butlers, who look as though they could be wearing name tags. These, clearly, are the most normal of mortals, unaccustomed to the strange.

They react to their predicament in the variety of ways that disoriented travelers generally do. They fall asleep, abruptly. They get drunk, outrageously. (Or at least the more casually dressed Stefano [Stevey Bell], a cook, and Trinculo [Aaron Roos], a sort of jester/cook’s helper, do.) They speculate about the feasibility of crating up Caliban and taking him back to the mainland to exhibit. They plot out their ambitions and indulge in misguided mourning. After the third or fourth appearance on stage of these gray-suited gentlemen, they begin to appear a bit fantastical themselves. On the one hand, they are reminiscent of characters out of Alice In Wonderland, rabbits in topcoats, ludicrous, but (possibly) benign. On the other hand, they evoke the ridiculousness of any over-dressed colonists in the tropics.

More than one study of The Tempest has treated it as a story about colonialism, with Prospero and his daughter Miranda (Kelly McCool, here) as foreign invaders, Ariel and Caliban the oppressed indigenous inhabitants. In this kind of reading, race, gender, and power are the big themes. But Prospero and Miranda are the victims of oppression, too; they’re out of their element, exiled, lonely. While The Tempest is full of great expatriate moments—“I am the best of them that speak this speech,” the newly washed-up Ferdinand (Ricky Prigge) says to Miranda, who has just seen her third man—the play is more concerned with the essentially foreign sensation that is bound up in the very feeling of being alive, that at-odds quality of life on earth.

And so it seems right to have The Tempest conclude, as this production did, with the words Prospero uses to end the “Masque”—the play-within-a-play (omitted here) that is part of Shakespeare’s text, though thought to have been added to the play after it was initially completed:

... we are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

This is, after all, a peaceful conclusion, but there’s a lingering melancholia. Ariel, finally granted her freedom, hastens away to die, we feel, or evaporate, if that’s what airy spirits do. Meanwhile, those of us left behind are always wrapped up in the play, or the play-within-the-play, and there’s no escaping. A brief illustration of this way we’re in the world occurred on opening night when Trinculo, or the actor Aaron Roos playing Trinculo, defected to the audience for a bit—still as Trinculo, still drunk (as the character had been for quite a while), but not making much ado about it—instead, he found a seat and briefly, dispassionately, resignedly, almost like an athlete benched for a bit, gazed at the play in progress, the complicated goings-on that he would soon, per the script, rejoin.

The Tempest runs at UM’s Masquer Theatre Thursday, March 1 through Saturday, March 3 and again Tuesday, March 6 through Saturday, March 10. Curtain at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $9 general, $7 for students and senior citizens. Call 243-4581.

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