In the classic play The Tempest, an usurped Italian duke uses magical powers to shipwreck his treacherous enemies on an isolated island where he has been stranded himself for 12 years. With the help of a supernatural spirit, he enacts a revenge plot that results in the kind of romance, comedy, and necessary Shakespearean glimpse into the intricate nature of the human soul that we've come to expect.
But whereas the original play is set on a nondescript island with 17th-century characters dressed in tights and armed with swords, New Theatre director John Manzelli's adaptation recreates the plot on a South Pacific island during times of colonization and slavery. This time around there's a gun, black light effects, and a block of wood strategically placed to look like a boner. But does this modern twist on Shakespeare succeed in capturing our attention?
Despite the intriguing historical setting, the set design is rather austere. Even if meant to portray a barren island, we'd venture it calls for at least a few random coconuts and a lonely palm tree. It isn't until the second half of the performance, when a black light reveals neon patterns on the otherwise gray set and dancing spirits are made to look like illuminated skeletons, that the scenery comes alive.
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Although some elements of the play are similarly lackluster, it's saved by several minor characters and the fascinating interplay of post-colonial themes. The most striking modification lies in the hybrid characterization of Ariel and Caliban who are an enslaved supernatural spirit and servant recast as black slaves in war paint and indigenous costume. It could be that the island in question is one originally inhabited by native, dark-skinned peoples. Or it could be that the characters represent African slaves brought to many colonized islands.
Either way, it's eerie how well Shakespeare's words adapt to notions of slavery and colonization. Talk of savages and cries for freedom are joined by orders for Caliban to lick the boots of his "master." He is effectively portrayed by Robert Strain as a hyper-sexual brute akin to a monstrous animal (in fact, one character frequently pets him on the head). It's almost like witnessing a 19th-century minstrel show. It's uncomfortable, but it sheds light on how little conceptions of paternalism and superiority change from Shakespearan times to more modern eras.
Patrice DeGraff-Arenas steals the performance as Ariel, the fiery spirit. She displays such vivacity and energy that she becomes the focal point even as her character lingers in the background, menancingly observing while other characters blandly hash out dialogue. Likewise, Avi Hoffman is so spectacular in his role as the drunken sailor Stephano that we think he might have actually downed a bottle of Jack before coming on stage. The scene in which his character hashes out a sinister plot to become the king of the island is meant as comedic reprieve, but it provides one the most captivating moments of the play.
Ultimately, it is these stellar performances that ensure this updated version of The Tempest doesn't become a sinking boat itself, but rather an accessible alternative. That, and the actor delivering lines in Elizabethan English while nearly poking his companion with a giant block of wood.