As William Shakespeare’s only comedy set in the new world, The Tempest deals with a major act of betrayal, ill treatment, the development of magic arts and a revenge plot that other playwrights would spin into tragedies.
It’s a popular play and one that WSC Avant Bard will take on for the third time, 25 years after it first appeared on its stage. The show runs May 31 through July 1 under the direction of Tom Prewitt.
The Tempest begins with the dramatics of a ship in the midst of a storm with the king of Naples and his party fighting to stay afloat. On land, Prospero, who was banished from his home by his brother Antonio also on the drowning ship (though in this production the character is Antonia in a gender swap), tells his daughter Miranda that it was her magical powers that caused the destruction, as they are served by a spirit named Ariel and by Caliban, son of the witch Sycorax.
WSC Avant Bard’s Artistic Director Emeritus Christopher Henley, who is preparing to play the role of Prospero, has been involved in all three productions.
The first time was in 1993 and Henley played Antonio under the direction of Brian Desmond, a founding ensemble member. Delaney Williams of The Wire fame was part of that production in one of his first professional roles.
In 2004, the theater needed to change its season-ending production of Titus Andronicus due to some financial issues, and replaced it with The Tempest, utilizing a set designed from props it had on hand in the storage space of the Clark Street Playhouse in Crystal City where the show was performed.
“We tried to make it a found-object production, since it was a low-budget one because of the fiscal challenges that sometimes plague a small theater company,” Henley says. “I directed that production and we had a female Prospero (Helen Hayes winner Jennifer Deal), who had worked with us many times over the years.”
The impetus for this season’s production was a contact from the Jamestown Foundation, which was interested in doing a site-specific production of the play and wanted to team up.
from WSC Avant Bard
May 31 – July 1, 2018
Details and tickets
“The lore surrounding the play is it was informed by a lot of messages back to England from explorers headed over to the new world, in particular two ships headed towards Jamestown that shipwrecked on Bermuda when it was uninhabited,” Henley says. “They took pieces of both of the shipwrecks and were able to assemble one sea-worthy ship and they left half the crew on the island of Bermuda, promising to come back when they hit Jamestown, and they did, which is how Bermuda was discovered and populated.”
Unfortunately, Jamestown had to put off doing the show, but WSC Avant Bard decided to follow through with the production.
“This is the second show we have done three times, the other being A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, like this, we did once in the ’90s, once in the ’00s and once in the 20-teens, so it’s funny to hit these plays once every 10 years,” Henley says. “As the decades pass, each time we have come back to the play there has been more of a focus on the implications of the colonial aspect of the relationships.”
Also, as the years have passed, those who have read or watched The Tempest have become more sympathetic to Caliban, as opposed to earlier productions that paint him in a different light.
“We are exploring the implications of Prospero’s treatments and relationships towards Caliban, Ariel and to a lesser degree his daughter, over whom he also exhorts a lot of control,” Henley says. “We’re also hoping for a quicker, brisker production than others you might have seen. Our director is aiming for around two hours, so we may be cutting more than we have in the past.”
One thing that Henley feels audiences will really appreciate is the design that Greg Stevens has created. Stevens, who does both the costumes and set, has created something that is “exceptional” and far different than either of the past two Tempests.
“There are so many fewer comedies in the Shakespeare cannon than there are tragedies and histories, so they get revived a little more frequently than something like Henry VI Part 3 for instance. Although this is a comedy, it accesses broader themes than some of his situational yuk-yuk works.”
He refers to its strikingly beautiful language, visions of utopia and the central theme of forgiveness that engages people in this Shakespearean new world comedy.
Christopher Henley’s reviews and interviews have been been popular features here on DC Theatre Scene since 2013. He has covered everything from Shear Madness, to one-and-only’s such as Pamela Reed, and along the way, has become one himself. Here is his archive.