The Tempest is a handful of a show. One of Shakespeare’s last plays, The Tempest is highly complex both in text and in plot development. But the UTM Drama Club’s actors and directors are in no way put off. They charge fearlessly into a realm both very strange and disturbingly familiar. The Tempest is a play that speaks to people. It covers a lot of ground: generational conflict, power, loss, freedom, slavery, parenthood, coming of age. It would be a challenge not to identify with at least one of the characters.
Directors Nathaniel Kinghan and Isaac Giles made a bold choice right from the start with cross-gender casting. I hesitate to call it “gender-blind”, simply because a character’s gender does matter in the context of the play. For instance, Antonio becomes Antonia (Rachelle Goebel) and, because of this change, her love affair with Sebastian becomes an important and refreshing element of the subplot. Casting Ariel (Alessa Dufresne) as female is not an uncommon choice, but this is the first time I understood her as a female counterpart to both Prospero (Stuart Hefford) and Caliban (Brett Houghton).
The trouble with well-known plays is that they’re well-known. I’ve seen The Tempest a few times, and it’s difficult not to compare productions. One element that often disappoints me is the relationship between Prospero and Miranda (Rachel VanDuzer), which often falls flat. The first scene between them is chiefly exposition, but here I saw an actual relationship develop within the exposition.
For the first time, I felt sympathy for Miranda and Ferdinand (John Wamsley). When first reading the play, I wanted them both to disappear; they seemed so boring compared to Prospero, Caliban, and the men from the shipwreck. This time, I sympathized with the lovers and found myself rooting for them. This caused me some distress, since I also felt Prospero’s pain at seeing his daughter grow away from him. Hefford’s ability to embody an old man was remarkable. He tackles the long speeches assigned to Prospero with impressive dexterity and sympathy, and the final moments of the play left me shaken.
The Tempest is not only sentimental and thought-provoking, though. As the play straddles the boundary between comedy and tragedy, the wide cast of characters provides much-needed comic relief. Caliban, Stephania (Chelsea Ranger), and Trinculo (Zane O’Connor) get up to some hilarious antics, my favourite being Stephania’s discovering Trinculo beneath the “monster’s” blanket. I won’t ruin the surprise, but I was nearly in tears of laughter watching the three of them charge around the stage.
Personally, I’m not a huge supporter of the fanfare of special effects that often accompanies magic onstage. Magic in The Tempest is absolutely essential, but in this production magic is problematized. Prospero is losing his abilities, moving from competent, confident magician to staggering, aging man. The actual magic, though, is about timing and suspension of disbelief. For example, while Ariel isn’t invisible to the audience, the characters treating her as invisible makes her so.
The Tempest is a touching and funny show, brought to life by a highly talented cast and production team. Here is the perfect balance of smart without boring and beautiful without pompous. The Tempest runs in the MiST Theatre from February 6 to 8 at 7 p.m.