“We are such stuff /as dreams are made on, and our little life / is rounded with a sleep”: Prospero’s famous and oft-misquoted lines provide the aesthetic for the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Tempest, as director Jim Helsinger capitalizes upon the play’s repeated references to dreams by setting it in "the dreaming" — an allusion to the Aboriginal Australian concept of the Dreaming, a sacred and timeless era of creation. But while visually stunning and beautifully executed, The Tempest’s inspirations from indigenous Australian and Polynesian cultures ultimately raise questions about colonialism and cultural appropriation that the production fails to address.
Though problematic, the production is also very strong, due in no small part to the excellent cast. Kelsey Formost stands out as Miranda, delivering a highly enjoyable and nuanced performance. Formost gives Miranda a unique physicality, clearly derived from her isolation from all human interaction besides her father, as well as her exposure to the other inhabitants of the island: a completely unselfconscious awkwardness that occasionally segues into the stylized dances or aggressive postures of the spirits. Formost imbues Miranda with strength to balance her innocence and naïveté, snatching her father’s staff when she feels he has gone too far with his magic, cowing Caliban into submission when recounting how he tried to assault her, or happily courting Ferdinand despite his confusion and occasional dismay that she does not follow his cultural norms. Her charming dynamic with Greg Wood’s Prospero helps anchor the emotional center of the production.
Wood’s Prospero, with his athletic energy and his booming voice, has clearly come into his power both mundane and magical. Wood depicts a man struggling to use such power responsibly, showing the addicting nature of his “rough magic” and his conflicted affection for his servants Ariel and Caliban; his struggle culminates in his decision to forgive his enemies, free his servants, and return to his duties as the Duke of Milan. The rest of the cast ably echoes these two modes of power, highlighting the distinction between the courtly concerns and petty scheming of Antonio (Carl N. Wallnau) and the Neapolitans, and the ambivalent servitude and fantastical feats of Caliban (Richard B. Watson) and Ariel (Dameka L. Hayes) and the island’s other spirits. The latter group have the more physically demanding roles: Watson creeps, and Hayes and the ensemble expertly sing, dance, and somersault, all while portraying otherworldly characters with all too worldly concerns.
The production’s more fantastic elements are supported by fairly simple and realistic design features. Bob Phillips’s set design primarily consists of desolate rock outcroppings about the thrust stage and a similarly barren cell for Prospero, with the impressionistically-colored sky and star-strewn floor hinting at the setting’s supernatural elements. The costume design, by Sam Fleming, makes a firm distinction between styles for the human and inhuman characters. Antonio and the Neapolitans are dressed in period finery, while Prospero and Miranda genuinely look like shipwreck victims in worn and beaten clothing. (Miranda’s wardrobe in particular has a great verisimilitude: clearly her father’s hand-me-downs, with a few simple ornaments made out of shells, and the naturally dreadlocked hair of someone without the ability or inclination for European-inspired hair care, courtesy of wig and make-up designer Martha Ruskai.) Meanwhile, the spirits of the island wear brightly-colored and patterned body suits (with Ariel’s modeled after the wood grain in which she was trapped before Prospero arrived on the island) and fluttering wigs, and Caliban sports a truly excellent make-up and prosthetic job as a creature who literally looks like half a fish and half a monster.
This attention to detail is apparent throughout the production, and director Jim Helsinger seems to have an aptitude for synthesizing the talents of his whole cast and crew for some truly epic set pieces. Helsinger incorporates composer Daniel Levy’s work throughout the production, with songs performed by Dameka L. Hayes, Julia Pfender, Leah Poyo, Paige Kresge, and other cast members, to do justice to Shakespeare’s most musical play. Music, lighting, and sound design combine to provide an awesome realization of Prospero’s magic, and beautifully complement moments like Caliban’s speech about the noises of the isle.
However, this pursuit of detail, applied to the adaptation of the production’s cultural inspirations but without a similarly detailed scrutiny as to how they are used, ultimately contributes to the production’s troubling implications. The setting of “the dreaming”, the haka danced by Ariel and the spirits to raise the eponymous tempest, their facial markings, the design of Prospero’s magic robe or the masks during the wedding masque — all are unmistakably inspired by indigenous Australian and Polynesian peoples but presented without their cultural context. Though The Tempest is frequently analyzed and performed through a post-colonialist lens, Helsinger chooses to downplay the text’s potential colonialist themes; the conflicts between Prospero, Ariel and Caliban are limited to the level of personal relationships, and do not address Prospero’s role as a European colonizer. To thus make use of the artistic and spiritual traditions of cultures oppressed by European colonization without any indication of their original significance seems disrespectful at best, marring what is otherwise a truly excellent and enjoyable production.