VEER previews "The Tempest"

A Two-Fold Tempest on One Stage

April 13, 2016
By Montague Gammon III

William Shakespeare’s late career verbal enchantments meet Jean Sibelius’ late career musical magic on the Chrysler Hall stage this spring to give Hampton Roads a new look at the Jamestown-old, spell-rich play, The Tempest.

Stage director Patrick Mullins, whose work at the Virginia Stage Company, formerly as Assistant and currently as Interim Artistic Director has won him heaps of praise, promises a show filled with a “kind of old-fashioned theatrical magic…analog, not digital,” a show of shadows cast on sails, of puppetry, lights and openly theatrical “magic” that allows the audience to watch that magic being created.

The idea of magic, in the supernatural sense, is central to Shakespeare’s tale of the usurped Duke Prospero of Milan encountering, entrapping, besting and forgiving those who overthrew and exiled him and his infant daughter.

Prospero had been a magician, a sorcerer, as well as a ruler of his city-state. The backstory of The Tempest is that magical studies so distracted him from his political duties that he fell prey, some dozen years before the play begins, to a coup by his brother Antonio, who was supported by Alonso, King of Naples.

Just about everything that happens on the unnamed island where Prospero and the now mid-teenage Miranda have been marooned for all those years, and onto the shores of which his magically summoned storm shipwrecks his old enemies in the play’s first scene, proceeds from his ability to cast spells.

(The idea of the artist, especially the theatrical artist and playwright, as a magician is often considered a theme of this script.)

When Prospero first landed on the island he found two residents, a spirit named Ariel, who became Prospero’s (usually willing) magic servant, and a primitive, perhaps malformed, human named Caliban, whose mother was a witch and whose father is unspecified. Caliban is also servant to Prospero and Miranda, but only under duress.

There’s a rich, interwoven plot involving Prospero and his former enemies; a whirlwind romance of Miranda and young Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Naples; and the broadly comic behavior of two ne’er-do-well Neapolitan servants named Trincolo and Stephano. Court Jester Trincolo and perpetually tipsy butler Stephano encourage Caliban to murder Prospero, while Antonio and King Alonso’s brother Sebastian plot to assassinate the King.

Music will be provided by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and several soloists, under the baton of Virginia Symphony Music Director JoAnn Falletta. Lyrics are in English. “The singers will be [akin to] shadow characters who will sing for the actors,” Falletta says.

“The Symphony is kind of the dream machine that creates the show,” Mullins says. “I’m using the music as the lead, the driving force, to set up the scenes that happen. We embrace the fact that … there is an orchestra on stage helping to tell the story.” Actors will even interact with the musicians, he suggests.

Falletta notes that Sibelius, whose symphonic and vocal Opus 109, titled Stormen – which of course translates as The Tempest – will accompany this fully staged Virginia Arts Festival production, himself “kind of believed in a supernatural under world.” This could be part of the special appeal that Shakespeare’s Tempest held for the composer, she suggests.

Sibelius holds same preeminent place among composers in Finland that Shakespeare does among playwrights in English speaking countries. He wrote this incidental music – that is, music intended meant to be used in conjunction with a production, in 1926, just before he stopped composing.

The Tempest – written about 1610-1611 – was, similarly, one of Shakespeare’s last works.

It’s a commonplace, though unproven and still debated, that writer and fortune seeker William Strachey’s account of being shipwrecked on Bermuda when voyaging to Jamestown in 1609 influenced or even prompted Shakespeare’s composition of the play.

This production does not “reference” the local connection, Mullins says, but his cast is rich in actors who are either from the region or are familiar to area audiences.

Mullins has changed Prospero’s brother Antonio into the mage’s sister Antonia, both ”because it give [him] broader casting casting abilities” and because it “charges the relationship between Antonia and Sebastian in a different way.” Kate Udall, whom VSC audiences have seen in All My Sons this season, and A Moon for the Misbegotten some years back, plays Antonia. Udall is also a film and TV actress, with credits that include featured parts in Law and Order: SVU and Law and Order: CSI.

Prospero is played by the Company’s perennial Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, Gregor Paslawsky. Gonzalo, who had secretly helped save Prospero and Miranda from death at the time of the coup, is played by another Christmas Carol actor, Ryan Clemens, who has done both Bob Cratchit and Old Joe.

Ricardo Melendez, of the Todd Rosenlieb Dance Company and numerous professional regional productions, takes the part of Trincolo. Jason Veasey, from last September’s Virginia Stage production of Peter and the Starcatcher, is Stephano.

Norfolk State student Christopher Lindsay is cast as Ferdinand, While two truly young actors take on featured roles. Mikael Gemeda-Breka, of the Governor’s School for the Arts, has the role of Caliban. Eleven year old Ellie Walden, a Norfolk Collegiate student, plays Ariel.

In response to the comment “She’s that good at 11?” Mullins replied with an emphatic “Um HMM!”

Mullins terms it “definitely a Hampton Roads mosaic of a cast.”

More generally, and with deliberate vagueness, Mullins says that “The statement [of this production] is about what is magic and how do we use it and how it impacts our lives.”

Shakespeare’s The Tempest
Virginia Arts Festival
Chrysler Hall
215 St. Pauls Blvd., Norfolk
April 16, 8:00 p.m.
April 17, 2:00 p.m.