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Photo: The Cast of “The Tempest” | James Murphy/Trainman Photography.
by Aaron Lockman
I’ll tell you this right up front: I LOVE outdoor Shakespeare. I’m such a sucker for it. I love the unpredictability of it, how a loud airplane or an unseemly rainstorm or a particularly mischievous squirrel could throw a wrench in the works at any moment. I love how it’s our best approximation at how Shakespeare was originally performed. I love how the outdoors swallows sound, and actors have to project so much louder than normal that realism falls by the wayside, and so the characters must become booming, exaggerated, larger than life. As such, I’m usually willing to cut outdoor Shakespeare a bit of slack when it comes to objective quality. I’ve seen crappy outdoor Shakes, and I’ve acted in crappy outdoor Shakes – it’s always a joy no matter how crappy it is, and I kind of hope it always exists.
Luckily for us, “The Tempest” at Midsommer Flight is anything but crappy; it is an hour and forty minutes of pure humor and heart. It doesn’t soar, exactly, but it flies along comfortably enough.
The set (Jeremiah Barr) is simple and flexible, consisting of a few wooden ladders, stools, and accessories. In a nice touch, there are several large cloths of various hues, which the actors drape over themselves or the set pieces, and spread across the stage area to create locations and images. Straightforward stuff, but intelligently used in the space, and responsible for some really lovely and evocative stage pictures.
The costume design in particular sets this show apart from your standard outdoor Shakes fare. Doing Shakespeare without setting it in some specific time period is tricky, costume-wise – it is cheaper than going full Elizabethan, but you run the risk of making the universe seem slapdash. Luckily, designer Lily Walls has given each set of characters a distinct visual identity, while also creating a believable fantasy universe (much of the world-building falls to Walls here, given the outdoor space and rather basic set). The dukes from Milan are clad in lots of button-up shirts, slick blazers, long dresses, and sparkly vests, making them seem too prim and proper for their island surroundings. The sprites, by contrast, are mostly in flowy, sandy-brown clothing (evoking both their airy non-corporealness and the desert island they’re a part of, with artful blue and lavender face paint that makes them seem otherworldly and strange). Both Miranda (Jennifer Mohr) and Prospero (Stephanie Monday) are in similarly ethereal, colorful, and flowy dresses, making them seem at home in the magical setting. Even though the costumes have no time period, it still feels like they have a consistent style, due to the visual through-lines threaded (heh) through what everyone is wearing. The only negative here is that I wish notorious fish-monster Caliban (Richard J. Eisloeffel) had been made to look just a little more, you know, monstrous, instead of a normal-looking hot guy with a flowy white shirt.
The actors all do good work here: they understand the language well and are all energetic and audible in the outdoor space. The comedy is well-choreographed and hilarious, and the original music (from Elizabeth Rentfro), all played by actors with instruments onstage, is alternately haunting and uplifting.
The central theme of “The Tempest” – that of Prospero letting go of her anger, and choosing to forgive those who’ve wronged her, not for their sake but for her own – gets a little buried in the first half, in favor of the more comedic subplots getting played up. But there is an absolutely gorgeous visual moment towards the end in which that theme is made quite clear, and it became a surprisingly engaging moment of catharsis for me, capping off an evening that so far had been entertaining, but not yet enthralling.
Right as I arrived at Gross Park, it was ninety degrees and blisteringly humid. But towards the end of the play, the sun began to set, and things cooled down. And just as Prospero began the tough process of letting go of her anger, a cool breeze swept through the grass. The moment would still have worked, of course, had the heat kept up. But it was a lovely little moment the weather gods gave us, and I like to imagine that there was a little magic in the air that evening.
The Tempest runs through August 25. More info at midsommerflight.com.