Despite gloomy gray skies and freak April snow showers outside, the audience of St. Olaf’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” was, with a single blinding bolt of lightning, drawn into a fantastical world of romance, redemption, mischief and magic. From the brilliant and evocative acting to the gorgeously immersive set, the play conjured up a “brave new world” unlike anything ever seen on the Hill, showcasing an immense amount of hard work and talent.
“The Tempest” tells the tale of the rightful Duke of Milan, Prospero, who has spent years exiled upon a deserted island, plotting to restore his young daughter, Miranda, to her rightful throne. With skillful powers of illusion and a gift for manipulation, Prospero conjures up the eponymous storm that sets into motion a chain of events culminating in wrongs righted and, of course, a blissful wedding. This brief summary, however, does little to capture the rich and strange complexities that Director Dona Freeman brought to life upon Kelsey Theater’s stage.
“The Tempest” is bursting at the seams with energy and life, much of which is conveyed through Shakespeare’s masterful use of the English language. This presents a bit of a challenge for some productions, but the cast took this dialogue-heavy play brilliantly to task by keeping the energy on stage electrically alive and impossible to ignore. Supported by an eerie and dreamy soundscape, the ensemble cast created a production that breathed new life into traditional interpretations of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays.
One immediately gains a sense of Freeman’s simple, yet evocative vision within the stunning opening scene; the audience sees the storm not through the eyes of the sailors who face it, but from the perspective of Prospero’s faithful servant, the spirit Ariel. She is responsible for casting the ship to the bottom of the sea and bringing Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio, and his royal retinue to the island. Here, and throughout the play, the magic unique to “The Tempest” is suggested rather than straightforwardly exhibited. The show shies from any showy special effects in favor of carefully crafted theatrical illusions that prove all the more visually delightful. Clever use of lights and sound contribute to a world where larger-than-life flowers drift from the sky with the wave of a hand and five airy spirits can become a single fearsome harpy with the aid of driftwood. “The Tempest” enchants by hearkening to a magic the audience can readily appreciate: the magic of the theater.
Working with an incredibly gifted crew was an unbelievable acting corps whose vitality and chemistry on stage sparkled. Joshua Woolfolk ’13 tackles the weighty responsibility of embodying Prospero, arguably the main character of the play, with laudable finesse. Often portrayed as an embittered and fierce man seeking vengeance, Woolfolk lends the character a measure of quiet power and grace rarely pulled off effectively. His use of magic is understated, while the titular storm he creates seems more a fateful act of reconciliation rather than a wrathful and merciless act of retribution. His tender relationship with Miranda and his heartfelt address to the audience at the play’s end garnered sincere admiration and applause.
Also notably refreshing was Tasha Viets-VanLear’s ’15 portrayal of Prospero’s naive and inquisitive daughter. Viets-VanLear plays Miranda, the only female islander, with a touching innocence unexpectedly imbued with a dash of pluck and self-determination. She fearlessly calls out the moral ambiguity of her father’s actions and enters into her admittedly speedy relationship with Ferdinand – performed with charming wide-eyed wonder by Isaac Rysdahl ’14 – as an equal, direct and unfussy, despite her unfamiliarity with the world at large.
One of the production’s most memorable interpretations of “The Tempest” was through its portrayal of Ariel. Made up of five individuals instead of a single being, Becca Hart ’14 gave a showstopping performance as the lead spirit. Her delicate and fierce physicality lent itself brilliantly to the role. Along with her four reflections, portrayed by Emily Anderson ’16, Siri Hammond ’13, Katie Hindman ’15 and Haley Olson ’16, Ariel moved about the stage in seductive synchronization. Along with Maxwell Collyard’s ’13 brutally poignant Caliban, whose unpredictable ferocity and hilarity rendered the character beautifully sympathetic, Ariel emphasizes the complex dynamic between power and enslavement that is touchingly resolved by Prospero at the play’s end.
As one of Shakespeare’s final works, Prospero’s renunciation of his magic is often read as the playwright’s farewell to the theatrical world. St. Olaf’s production of “The Tempest” highlighted this through its sincere celebration of the beautiful artifice of theatre. The show was a gift to experience and truly “such stuff as dreams are made on.”