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The Brave New World of the Tempest

Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is given a steampunk twist this summer in Festival 56’s open-air production.

Steampunk is an esthetic movement (and a science fiction genre) inspired by Victorian technology and the fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. What does this have to do with a play written circa 1610? The better question may be what new insights does this bring to the script?

On the one hand, one could argue that it’s merely window-dressing, but I’m not a purist. Although Jim Brigman’s show concept isn’t organically tied to the script, it does inform the piece. In casting a female Prospero (Prospera, played regally by Sarah Smith), the Festival’s production brings up the question of the role of women in society, which opens up a number of juxtapositions in a 19th century setting (sufferage? education? corsets?). And putting a technological gloss on a magical play invokes writer Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law of speculative fiction: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In our age of iPods and WiFi, can we rediscover wonder at hearing “noises, sounds and sweet airs” issue from a phonograph? An interesting conceit of the production is that Prospera’s magic is often called up, not through the “book and staff” of Shakespeare’s text, but through the stylus and disk of the phonograph.

The play is set on an island, and that island is vividly created by Christopher Gadomski’s simple, yet visually rich stage. Just as Prospera (Sarah Smith), the deposed Duchess of Milan, revisions the island as her own realm, the set is a beach, seen through the lens of a Victorian parlor, complete with picture frames and the already-mentioned phonograph. With two matinees opening the show, Jonathan Allender-Zivic’s lighting is yet unseen, but one hopes it will be magical. Amanda Ytzen’s costumes are dead-on steampunk — Victorian formality with the unexpected twists of a fur collar here and a set of brass goggles there.

Any “Tempest” is defined by its Caliban and its Ariel, as well as by its Prospera. While Shakespeare’s text calls Caliban a monster, Justin Ostergard plays him as a noble savage, degraded by slavery and perhaps the demons of his own twisted psyche. Watching Ostergard transform from the hunched, deformed monster to a prince of the isle is a beautiful moment in the show. The fairies (Ariel and her attendant sprites) in Brigman’s vision suggest the four elements, as translated through 19th century ballet (and Lauran Stanis’s evocative choreography), enhanced by striking wigs by Jameson Eaton. Prospera at one point refers to Ariel as “my bird,” and Claire Buchignani indeed plays the airy spirit with bird-like grace and alienity.

Stephanie Rita Morgan and Brendan Malafronte add wonderful physical comedy to innocence as the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand. The true clowns of the play, Trinculo and Stephano, are played broadly by Cody Jolly and Andrew Pollock, Jolly taking a page, it seems, from Pee Wee Herman with much screeching, and Pollock adding a bit of ratpack Dean Martin. Drew Hampton, D.J. Canady and Zach Handler, as the Italian nobility, are respectively conniving, malleable and unknowing as to the treachery involved in their subplot. There are hints of a possible romantic connection between Prospera and Bobby Underwood’s Gonzolo, but they are left unexplored.

Though the sets and costumes smack of the exotic, this is an extremely accessible “Tempest,” a delight to watch and even more delightful to think over and discuss afterward. “The Tempest” plays on Wednesdays and Sundays (a 2 p.m. matinee on Wednesday and Aug. 1, and 7:30 p.m. for the rest) through Aug. 1 in Soldiers and Sailors Park.

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