For Shakespeare fans, there are few moments in the Bard’s canon so poignant as the scene at the end of The Tempest in which Prospero, the exiled Duke-turned-wizard, renounces forever his magical arts and the tools with which he has plied them. Prospero may be a manipulative old sonofabitch who enslaves both Caliban and Ariel, patronizes his daughter Miranda and torments her suitor Ferdinand, along with the old adversaries who deposed him; but it is nearly universally agreed among scholars that he’s also the stand-in for the playwright himself, crafting his last great work and bidding his audiences adieu.
And great it indisputably is: The Tempest has larger-than-life characters, plenty of lyrical and memorable turns of phrase, backstabbing court intrigue, supernaturally caused natural disasters, tender romance, clownish drunken sailors, a deceptive fairy and a misunderstood monster, mysterious disembodied music, even a spectral banquet with goddesses in attendance – what more could a theatregoer ask for? No other Shakespeare play offers such diverse opportunities for stage magic and spectacle, and it remains wildly popular after four centuries for good reason.
Historically, and more so than most of Shakespeare’s works, The Tempest has also lent itself to an endless stream of modernized interpretations, some of them downright bizarre. Even as far back as Restoration theatre, producers and directors were tinkering with the play, inventing new characters to flesh out the scanty female side of its dramatis personae. In the 20th century, politicized productions spinning the story as an indictment of colonialism became fashionable, with black actors pointedly cast as the long-suffering Caliban. Peter Brook directed a mostly mime version in London in 1968, and several Noh and Bunraku adaptations appeared in Japan in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Perhaps the most over-the-top version of The Tempest in living memory was the one created for Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park in 1981 by avant-garde director Lee Breuer of Mabou Mines. The shipwrecked vessel was represented by a real helicopter, which circled low over the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park as Raul Julia in the role of Prospero waved a toy helicopter over his head. After that it just got weirder: Stephano and Trinculo were dressed (and voiced) as W. C. Fields and Mae West, while Ariel consisted of a flock of very small boys plus one very large Sumo wrestler.
The Tempest has also been made into several operas and innumerable films, including the kitschy 1956 science fiction adaptation Forbidden Planet, in which Ariel became Robbie the Robot and Caliban a disembodied “monster from the id.” There have been modern-language, homoerotic and animated movie versions, and most recently, Helen Mirren played Prospera in Julie Taymor’s 2010 feminist reimagining onscreen.
So what will the Department of Theatre Arts at SUNY-New Paltz do with this most durable and malleable work of the Bard of Avon in its new production that opens this Thursday and continues for two weekends? Well, the sorceress Prospera will be back, portrayed this time by associate professor and self-described “rogue artist” Connie Rotunda, backed by a student cast under the direction of associate professor Nancy Saklad. “Several characters switch genders from male to female roles,” says the official description, “resulting in their gender attributes taking on new meanings and allowing the audience to look at the nature of gender as it relates to positions of power.”
The art direction of the production will be somewhat steampunk in style, but the themes of the work will remain grounded in the universalities that make Shakespeare “not of an age, but for all time.” According to Saklad, “My concept focuses on the theme of retribution and forgiveness and ultimately what it means to love.”
The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Thursdays-Saturdays, November 14-16 & 21-23, 8 p.m., Sundays, November 17 & 24, 2 p.m., $18/$16/$10, McKenna Theatre, SUNY-New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz; (845) 257-3880, www.newpaltz.edu/theatre.