“The Tempest” was probably the last play that William Shakespeare authored alone, but he was clearly not past his prime. In many ways, “The Tempest” was his most imaginative play of all.
Unlike most of Shakespeare’s plays, there is no clear single source for the plot. It seems to have been amalgamated from an array of sources and at least partially invented. Even the genre is ambiguous; elements of comedy and tragedy are present in equal quantities.
As if the text itself is not unique enough, it gets a highly original rendering by the Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance this week. Henry Woronicz, a visiting professor and veteran of countless Shakespeare productions, is the director.
“The Tempest,” which plays out virtually in real time, begins with a shipwreck. Aboard the ship are Alonso (the King of Naples), his brother Sebastian, his son Ferdinand and Antonio (the Duke of Milan), among others. They assume themselves to be marooned on an uninhabited island.
However, the island is home to two people and at least a couple nonhuman beings. The people are Prospero and his daughter Miranda. Prospero is the brother of Antonio and the “rightful” Duke of Milan. A dozen years prior to the wreck, Antonio deposed his brother and usurped the dukedom, sending Prospero and Miranda into exile on the island.
Prospero has raised and educated Miranda with the help of Ariel, a supernatural spirit, and Caliban, a humanlike but magicless beast. Both are essentially enslaved by Prospero, so they vie for their freedom throughout.
Prospero himself possesses immense magical powers. In fact, it was he who conjured the ship to wreck, knowing his brother to be on it.
The rest of the play consists of three concurrent plots. Miranda and Ferdinand (the shipwrecked King’s son) fall in love, with some covert encouragement by Prospero. In another plot, Stephano and Trinculo (a butler and jester in Alonso’s court) drunkenly team up with Caliban to overthrow Prospero and seize control of the island. In the third plot, Sebastian and Antonio hatch a plan to kill Alonso and Gonzalo, allowing Sebastian to ascend to the throne.
The vision of this production is embodied in Kevin Nelson’s scenic design. The desert island setting is represented by a huge discoid structure encircling a couple of big fake rocks. Draped from the ceiling to the stage are giant silks, used throughout the show for all sorts of magic and treachery.
One of the boldest choices on the part of Woronicz is to have Ariel, Prospero’s magical assistant, played by three actors simultaneously. The three women cast in the role — Emily Rozman, Courtney Relyea-Spivack and Athena Kopulos — typically speak their lines in unison, sometimes trading off words for different sonic effects. They all wear the same frilly outfits with wigs and face paint reminiscent of silver Oompa Loompas.
The three Ariels match each other not only in appearance, but also in their movement and the pace of their speech. Because the three women are indistinguishable, Ariel has a creepy quality and it works well.
The funniest scenes in the play feature Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo, played by three graduate students in acting: Ashley Dillard, Abby Lee and Tara Chiusano, respectively. One can’t help but be charmed by Chiusano’s friendship with a little head-on-a-stick that she wields at all times.
Devin May and Erin Logan play the young lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda, with the appropriate innocence and naivete. Matthew Murry’s Prospero, despite his supernatural abilities and undeniable wisdom, has a grounded quality.
This production of “The Tempest” took a number of risks, and with the possible exception of an audiovisual projection that accompanies the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, they pay off. This doesn’t feel like one of those Shakespeare productions in which the director’s abstruse ideas are clumsily superimposed onto a classic text. The mystical character of the show is germane to the text itself.
“The Tempest” may have been Shakespeare’s last, but by no means was it his least. The poetry is gorgeous, the story is enchanting and the jokes are a delight.
If you go
WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.
WHAT: “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theatre in the Norvelle Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
TICKETS: $15-$25. Call 812-855-1103 or visit theatre.indiana.edu.