This last weekend, the American Shakespeare Center played before its first full house since before the COVID pandemic. It is a victory of huge proportions for a company that has been battered by the virus, as well as internal divisions over its ex-artistic director. And as their current fall repertory shows, every actor here has come through the struggles of the past two years invigorated, with talent to spare, ready to thrill us with their latest moves. The current crop of shows is well worth the weekend away from the hustle of the DC area; make the trip, you will be enchanted—but more important, beyond the sheer joy of live theater, you will come away with a renewed commitment to making our community a better, more welcoming place to live.
The sellout show was Shakespeare’s valedictory play The Tempest, that famous comedy set on a remote desert isle populated by strange native spirits, and a seemingly profane local who is co-opted into serving his European master. For white audiences, the play has had its charms, with Prospero usually portrayed as a kindly, quirky wizard from Milan and Caliban as a bizarrely costumed alien, trotted out primarily for comic relief.
Never mind that it’s his island. Never mind that Tempest is, for audiences of color, a play with as many issues as The Merchant of Venice, whose antisemitism has long been elided and whose central Jewish character, Shylock, has for centuries been deliberately recast as a tragic figure. We are still waiting for a substantial re-vision of The Tempest, and a re-situation of the character of Caliban—which isn’t even his real name, but one that Prospero cooked up for him.
This isn’t the Bard’s fault, necessarily; he wrote The Tempest at a time when audiences wanted adventures in exotic locales like the New World, with exotic natives to gawk at. British colonialism was in its infancy, and it was some eight or nine years before the arrival of the first African slaves in the Virginia colony—where they were promptly condemned by the harshest slave laws ever written in history, laws it took 350 years to largely (but never completely) erase.
Face it: producing this play today is a challenge because what may have seemed like a pleasant bit of fluff back in the early 1600s has a very different resonance today. The insults hurled at Caliban, originally designed for comic effect, now acquire a palpable ugliness, in much the same way that the invective against Shylock (originally a red-wigged comic foil) now rings darkly.
The acting ensemble at Staunton’s American Shakespeare Center, with its renewed mission of serving the community’s priorities as well as the Bard’s legacy, has created one of the most thought-provoking versions of this play you are likely to see—in Virginia, in DC, wherever. Working collaboratively, this multiracial acting company has navigated through troubling language that today is clearly unacceptable and created a vision of Prospero & Co. that will enable all audiences—emphasis on all—to appreciate Shakespeare’s genius without being distracted by the dated, unflattering aspects of his work.
The play itself remains intact—with a storm, produced in-house by the actors themselves, nearly drowning out the actors in the opening scene. Once firmly on the island we find, in Sarah Fallon, a Prospero whose majesty comes not from bluster but from care (true to the script, Fallon’s Prospero remains a father, he/him/his). The interactions between Prospero and his daughter, Miranda (Sarah Suzuki, who captures the innocence of youth memorably), are memorable because of the instantly recognizable tensions between long-suffering parent and impatient adolescent. Her rendition of the famous speech “Our revels now are ended…” comes in the context of a pensive moment as she contemplates a revolt in the works—does she understand what prompts a revolt from the islander Caliban, we wonder?
What also clues us in to the difference with this production is the portrayal of Caliban, by Tevin Davis. Because this Tempest is paired with Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, and because Davis plays the same role in both plays, we get a gentle but palpable sense of pushback against the Bard’s original. Davis wears cowrie shells, a West African marker of prestige, as a reminder that however we understand him, Caliban would have had a name, a language, and a heritage long before Prospero arrived—which goes a long way toward explaining why learning to curse Prospero in Prospero’s own language makes perfect sense.
Davis’ Caliban also refuses to taste a drop of liquor from the dead-drunk (and hilariously comic) duo of Stefano and Trinculo. Like the audience, he is well aware of their cluelessness, and he’s perfectly happy to let ASC’s comic masterminds, Erica Cruz Hernández and Annabelle Rollison, get all the laughs they deserve, while he gives the audience a classic, deadpan, “Really? These guys?” look.
As always with ASC there are standout performances among the supporting cast, led by the insufferably pedantic Gonzalo, played with gusto by Alexis Baigue (Gonzalo’s walking stick notwithstanding). And Mauricio Miranda’s Ferdinand has the charm of that awkward young man who falls all over himself when he meets up with Sarah Suzuki’s Miranda. Their courtship is priceless. (And if you think he’s geeky good in Tempest, wait until you see his star turn in Pericles, which is in this fall’s repertory as well!)
Be sure to show up early—one of the delights of a live show is you get to sing along with the cast during their pre-show, with the irrepressible James Keegan leading everyone in the psychedelic “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (to set the theme of magic to do) set off by Brandon Carter’s rendition of Bob Marley’s “Natural Mystic”—with the intermission punctuated by classic young-love hits like “Hooked on a Feeling” and “I Think We’re Alone Now.” What brings the house down before Act 2, however, is Tevin Davis’ getting in touch with his inner Aretha Franklin with a gorgeous “Chain of Fools.”
If it’s been a while since you’ve been to Staunton, now is the time—the company hasn’t seen an artistic peak before all the trouble started, and they are clearly back on their artistic feet. Miraculous indeed!
The Tempest plays only through November 19, in repertory with Une Tempete, and Pericles. Get busy, and get tickets!
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, with one intermission.
The Tempest, a part of American Shakespeare Center’s Actor’s Renaissance Season, plays through November 19, 2022, in repertory with Une Tempête and Pericles. All performances are at the Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 South Market Street, Staunton, VA. For information and tickets ($27–$60, with an option to sign up for the pay-what-you-will club), visit americanshakespearecenter.com.
Credits for The Tempest are online here (click on “cast” and on “artistic team”).
COVID Safety: American Shakespeare Center strongly encourages patrons to mask when possible. ASC’s complete COVID-19 Safety Visitor’s Guide is here.
A raw and razor-sharp ‘Une Tempête,’ in rep at American Shakespeare Center
A vividly hilarious ‘Pericles,’ in rep at American Shakespeare Center
(reviews by Andrew Walker White, November 4, 2022)