The Oregon Shakespeare Festival offers an abundance of resources to learn more about their Shakespeare productions. Park talks feature a Q&A with a resident actor; souvenir programs and play guides offer insight and illumination. Most helpful is the Preface—a 30-minute lecture delivered by one of OSF’s resident teachers, discussing whatever Shakespeare play is being housed at the Elizabethan that evening. For only five clams, you’re provided with an insider’s view into the director’s vision for the play. Well worth the shell out.
The Preface to this season’s production of The Tempest, directed by Libby Appel, proves a commodity to the play. Most vividly, it sheds light onto Appel’s and Scenic Designer Bill Bloodgood’s vision for the set. Think Stonehenge, and then think of that cool little bit about 2 miles down the road—The Durrington Walls. Here’s a l’il history for ya. The Durrington Walls were, according to carbon dating, occupied in approximately 2600BC— the same age as the earliest Stonehenge foundation. The DW are a timber circle, 500m in diameter, with a roadway paved with stone leading to the river Avon. It seems to have a ritualistic function toward its center, and a more domestic nature near its edge. Some believe the DW were a village used to house the builders of Stonehenge, and that the timbers meant to symbolize the transience of life; whereas the stones of Stonehenge were, perhaps, a representation of the final resting place for the dead.
Bloodgood was inspired by this “sacred space,” and created an arrangement of twelve large timber posts around a central hill—a central area built up as a mound that represents Prospero’s island. As Shakespeare draws many parallels in his plays, Appel is drawing a few of her own. Twelve is a relevant number in this production. Twelve timber posts grace the stage (I find it fascinating that at the start of the play, there are two additional timbers laying stage right and left. Do these represent her two years at OSF prior to taking the title of AD?). In the beginning of the play, Prospero recounts the past twelve years to Miranda, as Shakespeare most uncommonly obeys Aristotle’s Unity of Time and Space. And to add something bittersweet to this Romance, Libby Appel is stepping down after a twelve year reign as OSF’s Artistic Director. And what a beautifully dramatic way to let go. Appel says her farewell through this heartfelt and sensational production of The Tempest.
“I’ve always identified with the artist letting go. This is really a play about freedom. Not only the freeing of the slaves, which Prospero literally does at the end of this play; it frees him from his anger; from his need for revenge. And it does something else. It frees the artist from responsibility of letting go of his company. He says finally, 'To the elements be free and fare now well,' which, of course, for me echoes very soundly. I feel like Prospero, as I think you can imagine.” —Appel
Appel’s production plays heavily upon the senses, upon the emotions, and there is no doubt that each role is played by the right actor. Derrick Lee Weeden looks dashing in his pirate-like apparel, and conjures a most magical Prospero. With a deep, operatic voice and a towering stature, Weeden creates a tempest from atop the ritualistic mound through movement, and with every crack of lightning, Weeden cracks his staff upon the stage. But this Prospero isn’t all about power. Weeden is comical when he delivers his many eavesdropping asides. His moments with his daughter are touching. When he is not casting her into a deep sleep, he seems more wide-eyed than she during their intimate conversations. But it’s his relationship with and the letting go of Caliban and Ariel that will bring tears to your eyes by the end of the play.
There are some strong female characters in this production. Miranda (Nell Geisslinger) is to be admired. Geisslinger exudes more strength than naïveté, be it in her relationship with her father, or with Ferdinand (John Tufts), with whom she engages in an interesting game of tug-of-war using a timber instead of a rope. The two are joined in marriage as Ceres recites snippets of some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, while Juno and Iris perform their own ethereal Cirque du Soleil high above the stage.
Prospero’s usurping brother is, rather, his sister this time ‘round, and Greta Oglesby as Antonia is most intriguing. Her character is dark and sinister; a strong woman with a desire to control and manipulate. When it comes time for redemption, Oglesby remains in the shadows, and is the one character on the stage that silently rejects enlightenment, freedom, or redemption.
The greatest strength comes from Ariel (Nancy Rodriguez), a woman by all measures. This spirit of air and fire lights up the stage in the most brilliant costumes that signify her essential elements. Her head is always capped in some way—with vibrant, flowing strings of orange and red; with the head of a bird; and sometimes with some ornate, beaded skullcap. She also renders the most terrifying harpy, with a wing span of twelve feet, I’m guessing. And through it all, her wrists are bound. One must question how much this spirit really doth feel. There are moments when Rodriguez shows markèd empathy for the also enslaved Caliban, and her relationship with Prospero carries much sentiment and even romantic tension. These feelings grow stronger as she draws closer to her freedom. I knew it was coming—or, at least, I hoped it was—but this knowledge didn’t take away from the delicious grandeur of Rodriguez tearing the hat from her head and letting her long brown hair spill across her shoulders before leaving her master with an immaculate kiss.
Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban (Michael J. Hume, Christopher DuVal, and Dan Donohue, respectively) are a comedic joy, doing drunken song and dances while sipping their cocktails from coconuts. DuVal, however, steals the show with his impeccable timing. DuVal and Donohue’s version of the “most delicate monster” under Caliban’s gabardine is fascinating and hysterical, as the two somehow scurry across the stage like a monstrous crab.
One cannot help but feel the agony, the angst and the anger of Caliban. Donohue speaks and screams his role like a grumpy old man, wearing tattered pants, boots bound by shackles, a skull cap, as well, and his upper body bound and weighed down by a straitjacket of thick rope. He and his apparel are the color of dried mud, and his skin flakes and peels from his body. Donohue twitches in distraction, in obvious pain, both physical and mental, yet he still speaks the most beautiful verse, that when he cries to dream again, his audience just may just cry along with him. Caliban’s final moment with Prospero requires not a word to speak its grace. They part ways touching head to head, hand to hand, hand to heart.
Many critics—and a boatload of romantics—believe that Shakespeare channeled himself through Prospero, and that The Tempest is Shakespeare’s dramatic farewell to the theatre. I’d bargain that Appel is one of these romantics. After an enchanting twelve year reign as OSF’s Artistic Director, Appel breaks from her own staff and releases herself. Free from her own Durrington Walls, and accepting of the transience within. Just as Shakespeare continued his work, albeit in collaboration, after his retirement from his London life, Appel will continue to direct, and continue to be an integral part of OSF’s magic. So to Shakespeare, to Prospero, and to Appel, we offer our indulgence; we offer our thanks, and we remain forever charmed.