Shakespeare’s storm play is a convoluted one. Finally, someone clears it up. Valley Center Stage’s The Tempest runs through Sunday.
Shakespeare’s tale of island shipwreck, magical spirits, treachery, and revenge (of course) is supposed to be a tragi-comedy. But it’s never seemed very comedic to me.
Indeed, The Tempest is usually so convoluted — neither tragedy nor comedy but something messy in between — that it’s among my very least favorite plays. And it’s baffling why it’s staged so often (and often so badly). On top of the unpleasant elements found in most of Shakespeare’s work — including a so-called hero who’s a whiny, ambitious (in the Caesar sense), abusive, insecure troll, who wields much power and uses little of it for good — the magical aspects and the tragi-farce of people wandering the island ignorant of each other are traps that make staging easy to go awry.
Perhaps most theatrically tragic: stages take the inherent drama of a crushing storm and do nothing with it. A version on now east of Seattle takes the opposite approach.
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Valley Center Stage, a tiny theatre in the Cascade foothills community of North Bend, is a dramatic setting. Over its doorstep loom ominous mountains which, on that night, were shrouded in thick fog.
The backdrop is an apt one for their current run. Out in the foggy foothills, Valley reimagines The Tempest’s royalty as Viking leaders, resets the shipwreck northward from its usual Mediterranean setting, and incorporates seidr (Norse magic) into the story. It doesn’t do too much reconfiguring with the script. But Valley approaches The Tempest with a clarity of vision not often found with this show.
Importantly, this staging leans into the storm. The power of the thing that disorients experienced sailors, causes them to lose sight of one another enough to think most of their shipmates are dead, splinters their mighty vessel into planks, and leaves them stranded at the mercy of a mysterious island — that’s the tempest we need to feel in order to grasp the disorientation at the core of The Tempest. Here, Valley’s pitch-black, thunderous storm lands that perfectly, sending its fractured boat out to disperse among the aisles and its passengers out into the void of the sea before coming to rest — unseen to one another — on an unfamiliar island. Once it has brought us there, it’s easy to come along for the rest of the ride.
Coaxed out well in Valley’s staging, two relationships make The Tempest an intriguing show: the power of Prospero (the so-called hero) over Ariel, a magical spirit; and his control of Caliban, described as half-monster, whom he enslaves, tortures, and confines like a beast to a cage.
A common inquiry in Shakespeare’s work is whether, to accumulate and hold onto power, it’s better to be loved or feared. It’s the stuff of Machiavellian discourse raised recently on Seattle Rep’s stage in Teenage Dick (Mike Lew’s rewrite of Shakespeare’s Richard III). In Valley’s The Tempest, the dance between Stacy Newton’s Ariel and Brenden Elwood’s Prospero brings that question to a rolling boil.
As Prospero toys with Ariel’s freedom, he’s strategic, discovering it’s her endearment to him that makes her work the hardest, not his threats. The promise of her eventual freedom is the carrot he uses to control her, demanding that she use her magic to pursue his ends. (What’s not always clear is why, in her magic, she can’t tell him to go screw himself.)
Ariel’s role in his scheme of trickery and revenge is vital. She stirred up the mighty storm (a tempest) to cause the shipwreck and bring Prospero’s enemies to his door. Her magic created the opportunity for Prospero to toy with his island visitors, whom he viewed as traitors, after they were stuck there and ignorant of the circumstances; and she was the trickster who did much of the toying. But their dynamic is a shifting one, as Prospero tries to determine how to get the most out of his magical dominion.
Newton’s portrayal gives Ariel agency and depth. When bound in love to Prospero’s cause and channeling his vengeance, her eyes are daggers. When alienated by his wrath or deflated by his lack of commitment to his word and her freedom, she’s unsettled, languid. Ariel’s character has limited control over her circumstances, but Newton’s portrayal makes her the most dynamic character on stage.
WIth Caliban, Prospero’s assertion of dominion is more clear-cut. He seizes Caliban’s native land, holds him in a cave, and forces Prospero’s language upon him. There’s no attempt to win his loyalty. Here, Prospero is all about brute force and tyranny.
It makes it easy for Caliban to flee when he gets the chance. But his alternatives are complete idiots (the shipwrecked King Alonzo’s butler Stephano and jester Trinculo, both drunks), and his freedom is fleeting. Of course, we can guess that his new-found allies would have quickly turned and enslaved him, even if they had prevailed. That’s how these power-grabs always seem to go.
Caliban’s story is disturbingly familiar, a parallel to the worst of our own history. It’s also a murky inquiry into just deserts. It’s said that Prospero enslaved Caliban because he tried to attack his daughter, Miranda, and here we reach an uncomfortable impasse: America loves to blame survivors of sexual assault. It also loves to levy false accusations at those already holding less power, to justify its tendency to colonize, enslave, annihilate, or assimilate.
Valley’s portrayal has an uncomfortable balance, which is probably where it belongs. On the one hand, it’s natural to assume that the protagonist out for vengeance is in the right, an approach that feels natural and is common to most Shakespeare stagings. On the other, the power balance is so heavily tilted in favor of Prospero, his well of cruelty so deep and persistent, it’s hard to read it as justice in any circumstance. And Caliban’s only available scheme for escape is so doomed from the start, it’s clear he has no feasible route to get out from the weight of his captor’s persistent cruelty.
The clarity of vision in this production shines through in Valley’s thoughtful staging. The design work is excellent, particularly the lush costumes that lend themselves to Viking royalty with a touch of magic. Caliban’s look is impressive, as are Ariel’s and Prospero’s. Acting standouts include Elwood as Prospero, Newton as Ariel, and Tim Platt’s perfectly miserable Caliban; along with Chris Clark (as Stephano) and Synove Carlson (as Miranda).
The show’s not perfect. Some actors fall too comfortably into the temptation to turn every passage into a flowery (and drawn-out) monologue. The dialects seem to be wandering the whole continent, when dropping the affect would have served this telling well. There was entirely too much effort spent on the drawn-out comedy that’s really just a witless drunken stupor.
But the bulk of the show was quite enjoyable — high praise coming from someone who’s lukewarm on Shakespeare anyway and particularly hates this piece (usually).
This Tempest gets to the heart of a difficult work, lending clarity to the original while coaxing out reflections on the present. That’s a Shakespeare I can get behind.
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Valley’s program notes that the show’s direction and design were collective efforts, so here’s a big list rather than trying to parse them out:
Running the show: Wynter Elwood, Melissa Carter, Brenden Elwood, and Mike Murdock (directors); Karen Chang (stage manager)
Design & tech: David Beegle (tech team), Joseph Beegle (tech team), Kimberly Borum (set artistry, mountain mural), Mark Bryant (stage construction), Jeanette Carter (set artistry), Melissa Carter (set artistry), Karen Chang (set artistry, forest mural), Brenden Elwood (set design), Wynter Elwood (set design, set artistry, costume & props, stage construction), Julia Gordon (make-up artist), Abbie Grimstad (tech team), Ryan Hartwell (set artistry), Erika Laureano (custom jewelry), Stacy Newton (set artistry), Gino Oberto (tech team), Alex Otto (sound design), Sam Saulnier (lighting design), Michael Schmidt (Prospero’s crown), René Schuchter (set artistry), Cindy Snyder (stage construction), Jim Snyder (stage construction), Becky Steidle (costume & props)
On stage: Lucy Adams (Trinculo), Synove Carlson (Miranda), Melissa Carter (Mariner & Juno), Chris Clark (Stephano), Alex Demano (Fadrian), Jeannine Early (Sebastiana), Brenden Elwood (Prospero), Brynne Garman (Antonia), Loren Kitchens (Alonso), Renee Lystad (Mariner & Juno), Stacy Newton (Ariel), Alex Otto (Boatswain & Ceres), Tim Platt (Caliban), Oliver Rowland-Jones (Ferdinand), René Schuchter (Gonzalo), Veronica Ydalgo (Master of Ship & Iris)
The Tempest runs through 6/19 at Valley Center Stage in North Bend. Tickets are $23, here; and pay-what-you-choose tickets on Thursday. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.