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‘Misery makes strange bedfellows’: The magically contemporary message of ‘The Tempest’

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By Nicolette Toussaint
Special to The Sopris Sun

At the Thunder River Theatre Company (TRTC), “The Tempest” begins with a roar and a crash. While Prospero, played by Jeff Carlson, magically conjures up a storm, Prospero’s ocean-tossed enemies are disgorged from the bowels of the theatre itself, appearing through a trap door. As they writhe and struggle to hang onto their sinking ship, cries ring down from dark catwalks encompassing the ceiling. Thunder crashes from all sides, the darkened theatre rumbling and shaking the audience. 
In marked contrast to the noise, motion and darkness, TRTC’s staging is subdued. A symbolically-represented cirque of russet stone surrounds a gnarled white tree growing up from the stage. Another tree, rooted somewhere in the heavens, grows downward to meet it. The two trees aptly symbolize the mingling of the powers of heaven and earth in one of Shakespeare’s more unusual comedies.
White driftwood shows up again and again in TRTC’s production: It’s Prospero’s magical white staff. It’s firewood. It’s a drinking flask. It’s the imperiled ship – an artistic construction of twisted white wood and bleached canvas – as it careens over and through the stormy waves in the hands of the spirit Ariel, played by Trary Maddalone.
The intercutting of two scenes — the ship’s frantic passengers versus the wizard directing the storm — is familiar to modern audiences. It’s a device we’ve all experienced in films, and it’s vintage Lon Winston. Winston, TRTC’s founder, is the director and designer of TRTC’s production of “The Tempest”. 
Winston likes to “deconstruct” a play then reassemble it to tell the story in a more interesting and contemporary way. In Shakespeare’s original script, the first scene takes place on the storm-tossed ship. Only in the second scene does Shakespeare reveal that the storm was conjured up by a wizard.
While ghosts, witches, oracles and prophecies figure in many of Shakespeare’s plays, the realm of the supernatural plays a special role in “The Tempest”, investing what might otherwise be a rather prosaic tale of shipwreck with magical qualities. 
Of the Bard’s 18 comedies, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” bears the closest kinship with “The Tempest”. In both, we’re shown a fantastical world in which heavenly powers make sport of earthly fools. Both plays contain elves and sprites, drunkards and buffoons. Both give us characters that are polar opposites: “The Tempest’s” Ariel, an ethereal sprite, flits across the stage like a breathe of fresh air. Caliban, an earthbound “monster” is taken for “a strange fish” by Trinculo, the jester. Trinculo complains of Caliban’s rotting-fish scent and observes that “misery makes strange bedfellows.”
“The Tempest’s” plot explores the character of Prospero, a Duke who has been deposed by his brother Antonio, then exiled to a deserted island. After conjuring up a mighty tempest that shipwrecks Antonio and other interconnected enemies, Prospero plots revenge on those who wronged him. But at the last moment, Prospero instead turns to forgiveness, saying, “The rarer action is in virtue rather than vengeance.” 
“The play is about reconciliation, but Prospero wants people to pay before he forgives them,” Winston notes. Although “The Tempest” was written in 1620, Prospero’s speech to his brother, who he addresses as “most wicked sir,” contains the words, “I do forgive thy rankest fault, all of them, and require my dukedom of thee, which perforce I know, thou must restore.” That carries quite a contemporary political ring to it, does it not?
Shakespearean English can be a bit daunting, but because Winston has taken pains to carry the plot through action as well as dialog, most theatre-goers soon forget that they don’t speak Elizabethan. The nuances of the Bard’s plot, which are byzantine even as written out in the program’s synopsis, are less important than the overall arc of the play and its message of forgiveness.
As Winston has said, “Plays aren’t meant to be read – they’re meant to be performed. It’s not just saying the words. It’s delving into what they really mean.” “The Tempest” is  Winston’s third Shakespearean production at TRTC. Winston staged “Macbeth” early in TRTC’s history, partnering with CMC, and he directed “Hamlet” to local acclaim last season. While staging Shakespeare demands a great deal from the cast, this one rises to the occasion. And as Winston says, “The stories are universal and they dive into the human condition like no other.” 
“The Tempest” will again be offered March 3-4 and 9-11 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee on March 5.

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