Most people’s introductions to Shakespeare are not auspicious: Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream are rammed down their throat in high school, with long explanations of sonnet form and metaphor and tepid debates over meaning and feeling and just how terrible enforced marriages are, after which one might be shown a film of the play – but too late. It has already been ruined, and students see these films only through the lens of low-level pedantry. Rarely do people first have the chance to meet Shakespeare where he should be met – in the theatre.
So it is a relief and a delight to find so charming an introduction as the puppet company Shakey-Shake And Friends and its show The Tempest: A Puppet Epic, presently on at the Toronto Fringe. Aimed at the very youngest audience that can sensibly be allowed into a theatre, Shakey-Shake offers a richly amusing, multi-layered show that hopes to hook the kids on Shakespeare. (‘Get them while they’re young’ is, after all, a time-honoured method.) Having begun with Romeo and Juliet last year, the company has now moved on to The Tempest. Though to be clear, this isn’t a production of The Tempest per se. It’s a puppet-version of the story. Well, most of it. With a few alterations. Well, more than a few. And another story on top. And a moral about how great libraries are, which is only fair given that it’s showing at the Palmerston Library Theatre.
That being said, it’s hilarious. Better yet, it’s meant to be.
With Muppet-style handheld puppets (some crafted by the Henson Company, others homemade) and a team of seven black-clad puppeteers to wield them, the production offers intriguing challenges to the performers, who must not only manipulate and voice the puppets but also act, occasionally contorting themselves in the process. Remarkably there is not a weak link, which is especially impressive given that the puppeteers are playing three roles at once: as themselves, the puppeteers; as the puppet; and as the role the puppet is playing. ‘Metatheatrical’ doesn’t come close to describing it.
The adaptation by Tom McGee is reminiscent of British pantomime: rather than producing The Tempest, the story of that play is used as the backbone on which the essential narrative is embroidered with references to pop culture, inside jokes, and an extra story about the production. The constant shifts leave little opportunity for anyone to be bored.
The show opens with the Harry Potter theme music playing as a white owl walks down the central aisle and into the wings. I won’t spoil the surprise about the owl, but it soon becomes clear why the music has played: Donna, a large blue monster voiced and manipulated by Erin Eldershaw, has come visiting from Monstertown in the hopes of seeing the ninth Harry Potter film, only to discover that there is no such thing. Great disappointment ensues, but Shakey-Shake (a green-faced Shakespeare puppet, rather dapper in his red smoking jacket) comes to the rescue by offering to tell his own story involving a wizard – though he is greatly irritated to discover that no-one’s ever heard of Prospero, as opposed to, say, Dumbledore, Gandalf, the Wizard of Oz… Nevertheless, he manages to convince them to act out his tale, and roles are quickly distributed.
What follows is best described as a merry romp through the world of the play. Shakey-Shake (McGee) takes on Prospero (of course) and quotes King Lear to raise the storm (‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!’); his friend Marlowe (no, not the Marlowe), played by Jeff Dingle, becomes the evil Alonso, bemoaning the fact that his iPod won’t work on the island and insisting that being King isn’t really all that fun; Donna becomes Stephanie-o, Alonso’s wicked butler, while Paris the Shirtless Werewolf (distinctly one of the homemade puppets) takes on Caliban, described here as Prospero’s butler. To avoid the issue of drunkenness, the two monstrous butlers instead meet and fall in love, to the mutterings of Stephanie-o’s sidekick Trunkulo – a large trunk with two eyes and a monosyllabic vocabulary of grunts. Meanwhile, the young things are played by Len and Lucy, who played Romeo and Juliet the year before, are a couple, and have a hard time keeping their hands (such as they are) off each other, or staying in character. Len (Michael Man) apostrophises Miranda when first he sees her: ‘But soft! What light from yonder jungle breaks?’ Shira Taylor’s Lucy, meanwhile, risks running away with the show as the self-centered young prima donna who occasionally remembers to play Miranda when she’s not busy crowing over how great she is, bursting into song and putting the company at risk of lawsuits (Mickey Mouse pops out his head to threaten one after she sings a Disney song). Megan Miles’s green-haired Zip plays Ariel, flitting about at need and raising the tempest with a squirt bottle. The twists of the plot, which are kept in mind with plentiful narration when need be, keep the young audience entranced. The accompanying adults (or those there on their own), this time, are kept well-amused by some of the gimmicky moments: Ferdinand searching for Miranda with Google Maps, the comment that nobody would ever show a tragedy to children (followed by a walk-across of Shakey-Shake’s Romeo and Juliet poster), the mention in the programme that Shakespeare is an avid blogger and currently at work on his first mystery novel, and the jabs at Toronto mayor Rob Ford, which garnered the loudest adult laughter of the afternoon.
All this is predictably tied up in a slightly moralising way, with Stephanie-o and Caliban left to rule the island as Prospero admits he might have been a bit nasty, and Miranda declaring that she’ll decide who to marry, whatever Daddy thinks. We also get a rewritten epilogue, almost complete but with altered words to make it clearer that Prospero is asking for applause. It could be worse. As the cast rushes off to the library upstairs to find a book to keep the magic of storytelling going, Lucy is insisting that they do Twilight next. Whether to encourage the company in that direction or not is a truly existential dilemma.
In the meantime, we must make do with The Tempest, which is not difficult. Director Sarah Bruckschwaiger and her cast can be proud.