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The Tempest

The Power of Imagination, Mind over Magic

Sweet Tea Shakespeare, 1897 Poe House, Fayetteville, North Carolina
Saturday, June 16, 2017, rented lawn chair to left of arena play space
Directed by Jeremy Fiebig

Production photo of Prospero casting a spell with his staff pointing up into the night sky.
Prospero (Duana M. Burby) calls on the spirits in Sweet Tea Shakespeare's production of Shakespeare's The Tempest at the 1897 Poe House in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Below, Tohry Petty as Ariel. Photos courtesy of Sweet Tea Shakespeare.

This review should start with the great visual that opens the Sweet Tea Shakespeare production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Instead, I'm going to start with the morning after, which represents a watershed moment for me as a Shakespeare aficionado and theater critic.

Sweet Tea produced The Tempest in repertory with Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre, staging both plays in the backyard of the 1897 Poe House in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I watched the play, I enjoyed it, I ran it back through my head as I drove to my hotel, I slept. The next morning, I was thinking about the play as I got up and ran it back through my head again as I showered and had breakfast. Then, as I prepared to transcribe my notes, it hit me: Every role was played by women (none regendered) except the three goddesses in Prospero's pageant of spirits who were played by men as drag queens.

For years I've advocated for gender-neutral casting in Shakespeare no matter the role (see my 2013 commentary, "A Woman's Place: Shakespeare Understood Women Better Than Modern Men Do"). This Sweet Tea Tempest signifies a key stage in my own evolution in that I simply didn't notice the "all-female cast" because I was caught up in watching characters, including the goddesses (Ceres played by Gabe Terry is quite the spoiled deity). I had proven my long-held argument by my own in-the-moment obliviousness. Notably, too, Sweet Tea's advertising hasn't described the production as "all female," which Shakespeare in the Ruins' Timon of Athens did earlier this year though it, too, had three male dancers. Nor do I recall Sweet Tea's founding artistic director, Jeremy Fiebig, who directed this production, mentioning the predominately female cast in any of our conversations. It simply was a matter that not just Ariel and Prospero (not Prospera) but also Caliban, Ferdinand, Trinculo, Stephano, Gonzalo, Antonio, Alonso, Sebastian, and the rest of the Neapolitan court were played by women.

Juno, Iris, and Ceres (Taj Allen, Austin Hendricks, and Terry, respectively) being depicted as drag queens is an idea Fiebig perhaps lifted from the 2011 American Shakespeare Center production in Staunton, Virginia. Fiebig is an alumnus of Mary Baldwin College's Master of Letters/Master of Fine Arts in Shakespeare and Performance program associated with that theater. Fiebig brings that program's text-centric standard to his Fayetteville company, but he infuses Sweet Tea productions with an aesthete that evolved from his upbringing as the son of a Baptist preacher. Baptist churches, he told me in an interview, "know how to have a potluck that's really awesome, and they know how to use music to shape emotion." A Sweet Tea production is as much a backyard barbecue and party as it is professional theater. All three elements—the barbecue (from a local restaurant), the music (courtesy of the company's own band, the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers), and the Shakespeare—combine for an evening of entertainment and good company. The audience is even invited to help strike the set, and some patrons stick around to lend a hand.

With the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers playing in the half hour before the show starts, I write my first entry in my notebook: "This is a helluva band." When it comes to music, Sweet Tea has a music director, Jacob French, exhibiting brilliance in composition, song selection, and arrangements, as well as guitar playing. The company also a resource many theaters don't have: a U.S. Army base nearby, Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne Division and the musicians in its division band. Staff Sergeant Ryan Kaluza is here tonight embellishing the music with intriguing rhythms and punctuations, simultaneously strange and delightful, on his drum kit and a variety of percussion.

Given the backyard setting for the theater, Sweet Tea uses simple production values (sometimes aided by Mother Nature: as Caliban gives the music-of-the-isle speech, the cicadas in the trees around us hum along). The arena-configured play space is a large rug of artificial turf running between two plain, curtained backdrops, the audience in lawn chairs and on blankets on either side. Simple and inexpensive does not mean cheap, for the plays' special effects are created with intelligent imagination.

That brings us to the play's opening scene, the wreck of the ship carrying the King of Naples, Alonso (Joyce Borum), and his court. First, a quick plot recap. Prospero had been duke of Milan but was usurped by his brother, Antonio, with Alonso's help. The usurpers put Prospero and his 3-year-old daughter, Miranda, to sea, and father and daughter landed on an island with one resident, Caliban, son of the late witch Sycorax. Prospero, who had studied the ocular arts and was bearing the books of his library retrieved for him by the Neapolitan lord Gonzalo, has harnessed the magical spirits of the island to do his bidding and enslaved Caliban after he tried to rape Miranda. Now, 12 years later, the usurpers are passing by the island, and Prospero whips up a tempest to wreck the ship, though (spoiler alert) the wreck itself is an illusion.

Ariel (Tohry Petty) appears holding a staff with a long sail in a pose that suggests she is the ship's figurehead. The band plays a cello-heavy arrangement of Laura Viers' "Wrecking" ("We can do some wrecking here; Til a little color comes into your face; We can do some wrecking here, and find something to love in this broken place"), which, along with a wind machine, creates the atmosphere of a rising storm. The ship's passengers emerge and take hold of a rope, which flings them back and forth across the deck as they shout Shakespeare's lines. In the cacophony of sounds; I can't distinguish what they're saying, but that's the nature of a real storm. The shipmaster ends up swimming through an aqua blue sheet to the side, and eventually all of the passengers have representatively fallen overboard, poking their heads through holes in two sheets to represent their foundering in the water. Ariel bears a proud smile.

This introduction to Ariel—who, in the text, does not appear in that scene but does later describe being there—kicks off Petty's arresting performance, visually and textually, of the spirit. In her first meeting with Prospero (Duana M. Burby), Arial is wearing a black coat with flaming taffeta on the sleeves and shoulders and a black porkpie hat ablaze in faux flames. Blue eyeshadow sweeps from her eyes up over her temples. Her hair is tied up in blue yarn that dangles down to her waist, and blue yarn is wrapped round her wrist and the palm of her right hand (Prospero also has blue fabric as a wrist band on one arm). When Ariel represents a sea nymph, she is wearing blue taffeta on her sleeves. As the harpy, her black wings span about 12 feet. Credit for costumes for both repertory productions go to Dena Vassey, Laura Parker, and Sana Moulder.

This Ariel is childlike, gleefully describing the shipwreck to Prospero, and then turning petulant and throwing an all-out, stomping temper tantrum when he tells her there's more work to do. Prospero responds to Ariel's resistance by whipping up a vision of Sycorax, a huge head on a long pole, before which Petty's Ariel reenacts being trapped in a "cloven pine." Petty maintains her still-a-little-girl aspect through the play, leading to an interesting line reading at the crux point of her relationship with Prospero, whom Burby plays as perpetually short-tempered. When Prospero commands Arial to put together the pageant for Miranda (Alexcia Thompson) and King Alonso's son, Ferdinand (Jessica Osnoe), Arial asks, "Presently?" "Ay, with a twink," Prospero says, and Petty's Ariel takes this as a cue to be impishly cute. "Before you can say 'come' and 'go,' and breathe twice and cry 'so, so,' each one, tripping on his toe, will be here with mop and mow." She pauses when she notes that Prospero is ignoring her and asks, "Do you love me, master? No?" She is seeking not just affection but attention from Prospero—one and the same for a child—and he, a bit surprised at the question, softens some in answering, "Dearly, my delicate Ariel." Burby turns businesslike again, though, in continuing the line: "Do not approach till thou doest hear me call." "Well: I conceive," Ariel responds, and in this we see Ariel, not Prospero, growing up. When Prospero sets Ariel free in the final moments of the play, they shake hands, hand to forearm like Roman soldiers, and with a nod Ariel departs.

Given that Prospero creates a supernatural pageant for the newly betrothed Miranda and Ferdinand, Fiebig decides that Prospero is wont to create similar surreal visual aids for his lectures, as he does by bringing forth Sycorax to force Ariel to recall her imprisonment before he landed on the island and set her free. In describing his usurpation to Miranda, Prospero brings on each of the characters he mentions, played by the lords themselves wearing black masks. Prospero even has a surreal vision just for the audience. As the play is reaching its climax, Burby strolls on stage with flames flickering out of Prospero's open book. She slams it shut, and smoke continues emitting from the pages. Cool effect.

Caliban (Cerina Johnson) has his own nightmarish Sycorax moment when, inserted in Act IV between the pageant of goddesses and Caliban's approach with drunk butler Stephano (Marie Lowe) and drunk jester Trinculo (Medina Demeter) to Prospero's cell where Stephano intends to murder the magician and become king of the island. Singing the Mumford and Sons song "Broken Crown," Caliban is haunted by Sycorax bearing down on him and a masked Stephano picking at him before being consumed by black-masked spirits. He emerges, finishes the song, and we move on to the would-be rebels being hoodwinked by Prospero and Ariel.

Caliban's costume is shark like, Johnson wearing black dorsal fins and fins on her wrists along with old seaman pants and a gray tank top. Hers is one of the most singularly interesting readings of the part I've seen for one particular choice: This Caliban doesn't like the booze Stephano gives him. Johnson's Caliban nearly gags on the first taste and thereafter avoids it even as Stephano tries to pry it into his mouth. This means Caliban is not drunk. His comparing Stephano to Prospero and seeing a god in the loutish brut opposed to the tyranny he sees in his current master is ignorance leading to potentially tragic consequences. Indeed, as Caliban sings "Freedom, high-day, freedom!" Stephano throws a leash on him.

Production photo of Ariel with the audience and Poe House in the background.Nevertheless, the production is wonderfully comic, especially in the performances of Osnoe's innocently savvy Ferdinand and Lowe's bombastic lout of a Stephano, not to mention the drag queen goddesses and the spirits who go out into the audience to dance with patrons during Prospero's pageant. Yet, what happens next in that pageant reinforces a dark undertow of this production, the vexations consuming Prospero. Burby inexplicably runs screaming into the midst of all the celebratory frivolity, shocking the audience as much as she shocks the spirits, Miranda, and Ferdinand. Only after this display does Burby speak Prospero's reason for dissipating the pageant, switching up the text by moving the verse from before to after the stage direction. She then goes on to deliver Prospero's famous "we are such stuff as dreams are made on" speech as a rage, Ariel hiding from the magician's wrath though it's apparently not aimed at her (but Ariel, obviously, never knows for sure).

We don't fully learn what has this Prospero's psyche so tied up in knots, even after his dukedom is reinstated and he forgives the usurpers and the rebels. Prospero's powers are on full display throughout this production, yet Burby never portrays the magician at ease or satisfied, and she speaks the epilogue almost as a relief. "Now my charms are all o'erthrown, and what strength I have's mine own." That speech ends with a request to be "relieved by prayer."

"As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free," Prospero says in the epilogue's final couplet. It's kind of like a reverse benediction, may blessings go with me as you leave. We've already been thoroughly blessed by this production, so why not.

Eric Minton
January 30, 2019

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