Friday, June 25, 2010

A Long Walk With Optimist's Tempest

Outdoor Shakespeare at Alverno

By Russ Bickerstaff
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(L to R) Angela Iannone, James Pickering and Tom Reed 

The Optimist Theatre debuts a prospective annual outdoor Shakespeare series with a production of The Tempest. Due to slightly haywire scheduling, I was unable to attend the show opening weekend. Thankfully, I had the evening open last night. Due to a weird twist of chance, it ended up being my third outdoor Shakespeare show in six days. Surprisingly, my third trip outside with Shakespeare and a full cast was not as exhausting as expected.

Music played in the reasonably cool early summer outdoor spaces just outside Alverno college as the 8:00om show approached. There was a concession stand with some rather nice-looking summer fare and a nice selection of beers. The Optimist’s registration table sold programs and magnets to help raise funds for further outdoor Shakespeare productions. Grdaully, members of the cast filtered in amidst the attendees incognito out of costume. The show is booked solid through the end of the run (there are only a few more performances left as I write this—the show closes Sunday.) As might’ve been expected with a free show, a number of those who registered in advance for last night’s show didn’t make it, allowing a fair number of the rest of us fairly decent seastts for the performance.

The Setting

The stage is pretty simple. Costuming and a few puppets provide all the details needed to establish the setting. I’d seen the show outdoors before . . . Door Shakespeare did a production of the show some time ago . . . both productions featured professional actors and minimal production budget. The big difference here is the atmosphere . . . everyone’s cozily packed-in to an intimate little space between buildings on the campus of Alverno College . . . the intimacy of the space Door Shakespeare performs in has a very wild, rural feel to it . . . very natural. The clearing they perform in almost sneaks up on audience members as they approach, Here the space is much more formal . . . and being as it’s situated on the south edge of the largest city in the state, the space has a personality all its own. First: this is Milwaukee—a town that loves its fireworks. Somewhere after intermission last night, the sound of distant booms punctuated the festivities. Also: Alverno is really, really close to the airport, putting this particular Tempest directly in the flight path of planes bound for Mitchell International . . . (not nearly as distracting as it sounds and for me  personally the planes passing by added an odd connection to ABC’s Lost . . . the series was heavily inspired by the play and I couldn’t help but briefly envision one of those planes breaking in half on their way into a crash . . . suddenly we’re on another part of the island and there’s Michael Emerson giving orders to the Others—weird . . . )  The most interesting aspect of the south side that leant itself quite well to the production had to be the fireflies. They didn’t show-up until after intermission, but the eye was briefly attracted to the distinct bioluminescence of the little bugs winking in and out around the edges of the stage lights. At one point, Angela Iannone was angrily accosting a few people on the island—off in the background a particularly persistent little firefly seem to be acting as her minion . . . rushing excitedly back and forth behind her as she deftly leveled Shakespearian anger at a couple of marginal characters. . . and the firefly in the background seemed to be excitedly punctuating it all in vigorous agreement with her . . .

The Tribe

The show establishes a substantial atmosphere quite early on. The magic of the island is established by rhythmic movements of a large ensemble of actors dressed as members of a tribe on the island. This was not without its charm—a ragged, aboriginal energy animates the stage adding substantial atmosphere, which is great when the effect works. At times, however, they all look like a mess of late ‘60’s hippies moving a bout onstage. It doesn’t look like some primeval island so much as it does Woodstock, which is a bit of a pity. Some of the best moments with the tribe involve moments aided by props from the Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre. The skeletal dogs made specifically for the production are particularly effective. Near the end, there’s a scene that has almost an aboriginal ritualistic feel to it. This is a lot of fun, but a big part of that sort of sacred ritual is direct interaction with it. The energy onstage is kept onstage, keeping the scene from reaching its full potential. It might’ve had more of an impact if the Optimist made some effort to engage the audience a bit more directly, but it had a profound impact nonetheless. There’s kind of an interesting level of detail to the costuming which has a significance that I may be reading a bit too heavily into . . . much of the tribal ensemble have designs resembling ancient sacred symbols adorning their bodies. This could ctually make some practical sense in relationship to the story—as the tribe is called on to represent the magic of the island—a magic that Prospero has taken command of, the old man would’ve had to have bound that magic to his will through some sort of sacred rites . . . and so all these elements of magic are bound to him through the symbols he has used to subjugate them . . . for me the symbols adorning the tribe almost felt like a visual reference to Simon’s Necronomicon and aboriginal religions . . . very cool, but I don’t think there was quite that much thought put into it beyond the desire to add mood to the production . . . a way of provide a movable set for the production that was quite effective. 

Three From Equity

The central three cast members in the show are James Pickering, Angela Iannone and Tom Reed who play Prospero, Ariel and Caliban. With a powerful stage presence, a high-gravity voice and more than enough experience to command authority onstage, Pickering makes for a notably striking Prospero. Suffice it to say, Pickering holds down the center of the play quite well. Angela Iannone has an otherwordliness about her as Ariel. Decisions seem to have been made with her and a few other characters to amplify the drama—ratcheting up the intensity of things. It’s a great effect and Iannone is really effective at this sort of acting, but for me, it almost compromises some of the natural emotion of the character to amplify the intensity. This was only an intermittent problem, however, The dynamic between Iannone as Prospero’s servant and Pickering as Prospero felt strikingly real at those moments when it needed to do so. Tom Reed carries a fair amount of weight about him as Caliban. Bearing markings quite a bit more extensive and elaborate than any member of the tribe, Reed definitely makes an impact as Caliban. This is my third time seeing the Tempest and I still haven’t seen him played in a way that makes perfect sense to me. When I first read the script in high school, I envisioned Caliban as someone who carried a tremendous amount of physical power within him . . .a power that has been subjugated by Prospero. I’ve never seen that kind of inner power brought to the stage in a production, which is kind of a disappointment, as it really would make for a compelling depth to an otherwise simplistic character. Reed quite effectively plays the Gollum-esque primitive who reluctantly bows down before anyone with potent perceived power. It’s a really solid performance, but it could’ve been tackled in a way that was a bit more compelling.

Notable Experience In The Margins

There are a few actors here who are remarkably accomplished beyond the production who are placed in smaller side roles. Most notable among them are David Flores and Ken Williams as Trinculo and Stephano—two drunks enlisted by Caliban to attempt to overthrow Prospero. Williams plays the comic drunk without the kind of weak exaggeration so often found in this type of work. Trinculo isn’t a terribly deep character, but Flores manages to find enough depth and charisma to make the character interesting nonetheless. There’s quite a bit of talent here that isn’t given enough room to manage what Flores does with a marginal character. Flora Coker plays the woefully limited role of Gonzalo. Jacque Troy is in a similar position as Antonio. Neil Haven is piercingly charming as Sebastian. Amie Losi is buried in the tribe. And T. Stacy Hicks is suitably authoritative as King Alonso, but his appearance here is quite a step out of the spotlight for an actor who did such a brilliant job in Spirits To Enforce with Youngblood.  So it goes with large ensemble shows—there are no small roles, there is only untapped potential talent speaking few lines.

Rising Talent Within The Ensemble

The central romance of the play occurs between Prospero’s daughter Miranda and Prince Ferdinand. The characters are kind of unremarkable and the romance is a bit weak and lifeless, but rising talents Andrew Voss and Jocelyn Fitz-Gibbon are charming enough to make it work. Love at first sight actually seems kind of believable between the two of them, which is impressive enough in and of itself. Fitz-Gibbon shows a talent for physically dynamic performance and there’s a clever bit of physical direction between the two of them involving a heavy couple of couple of logs that he has some trouble with and she effortlessly hoists over her shoulder. Voss’ charisma permeates his performance, which is no small task given the relatively flat nature of the role.

All in all, given limited funding of a theatre company in its infancy, the Optimist Theatre puts together an aggressively enjoyable initial trip outside. The show may be booked-up on reservations for the remainder of its run, but last night there were a number of chairs available even after last-minute walk-ups were served. There was plenty of space on the lawn around the edges as well . . . it’s a free show, so even those seeing the show from a distance and oblique angles are well worth the trouble of going to Alverno for a unique opportunity to see relatively high-caliber outdoor Shakespeare without the long trip to Door County or Spring Green. 

The Optimist Theatre’s production of The Tempest runs through June 27th. The free outdoor show is booked solid through the end of the run. Those wishing to attend the show may still b seated in the event of empty seats 15 minutes prior to showtime. Grass seating is available for anyone else on a first come, first served basis. 

 

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