What is interesting about this year’s iteration of The Tempest is that female characters of power have replaced male characters of power. Prospero is now Prospera, the marooned rightful Dutchess of Milan. Antonio is now Antonia, the bitch sister who stole the throne. Gonzalo is now Gonzalia, one of the court. Ariel, the sprite who carries out the magical wishes of Prospera, is, too, revealed to be a woman. Penis has been replaced with vagina, scrotum with ovary, chest with bosom. Vasa deferentia will not be needed.
The gender swapping of characters is the key to the performance, according to Dramaturg Laura Fox’s program liner notes. This invites a feminist reading of the play, placing a particular emphasis on the performance’s depiction of the relationship between gender and power. The play is presented as a direct rejection of the patriarchal notions present in productions of the play applying the original script. Women playing originally male roles, however, is nothing new at Festival Playhouse. The company’s presentation of Hamlet two seasons ago featured an all-female cast. Yet while in that production, women played to stereotypical notions of men, lowering their voices and drawing their swords on crusades to avenge slain fathers, in The Tempest, the women of power are portrayed out of the shadow of perceived notions of masculinity.
Emilia LaPenta’s Prospera is the starkest example of this rejection of traditional masculine-sourced power on stage. While the scripted lines remain unchanged from those of Prospero, Fox writes that “Miranda’s one parent is no longer a tyrant father, but a matriarch who wields her power over everything and everyone on the island, including Caliban.” How does one wield power “over everything and everyone, including Caliban” without being a tyrant? By being really passive-aggressive and relatively nice about it. While she may not shriek or bellow as a tyrant may suggest, Prospera still partakes in all the tyranny of Prospero, fucking with everybody on a whim, exercising control over her daughter Miranda’s (the wonderfully deranged Arkham-worthy Kelly Campbell) prospective love life, and making Caliban feel as small and pathetic as a partially-human being can feel.
Prospera maintains the entirety Prospero’s masculine power, but adds a touch of hostess charm and femininity without ever compromising the Dutchess’s political virility. This suggests the application of a new lens through which to claim notions of power and control. Her character is the very opposite of Michael Chodos’ wonderfully power-mad Prospero in last year’s Return to the Forbidden Planet. While Chodos is nearly six feet tall and appears much larger than in life on the stage, Lapenta is not physically imposing by any means, dwarfed, in fact, by her giant phallus of a staff. While Forbidden Planet‘s over the top Prospero was costumed in flowing black and gold robes inciting notions of radioactive metal, Prospera is dressed in pink, and wears an Amish-looking bonnet that covers her head. Furthermore, LaPenta’s delivery is in contrast to Chodos channelling his sonority through his imposing stage presence in order to coerce his minions. While stern and calculated, Prospera foregoes the overbearing volume and projection one might assume would accompany an all-powerful ruler hell bent on returning to their rightful throne.
LaPenta stands not only as a rejection of Chodos’ tirading patriarchal sorcerer, but also to Michelle Myer’s taciturn, darkly clad dominatrix of a Queen Gertrude in the aforementioned all-women production of Hamlet. Simply stated, traditional assumptions and projections of power have been left out of The Tempest, intentionally so, and with great affect.
As for the other half, the men of the island are all hopeless fools–and thankfully so. The prolonged boredom of writer William Shakespeare’s long-winded scene-setting dialogue is not aided in its tediousness by Director Karen’s Berthel’s decision to block Prospera and Miranda upstage, at almost the farthest point from the audience. They never really move throughout the entirety of their lengthy initial scene, and at times it is difficult to hear them.
Theater is added to the play as in stumbles Stephano, (a convincingly drunk Chodos) and Trinculo, a Fool, played with fantastic jest by the slick and quick-witted Sam Bertken. Trinculo unwittingly couples with a recumbent Caliban, who, upon being discovered and given wine by Stephano, worships the drunk as a god. The three stumble about their newfound kingdom of an island, and they and their source of power are ultimately and understandably mocked by the rest of the cast.
The only male character with any real claim to power is Alonso, King of Naples, and he is mainly a sap. Played by Stephano Cagnato, who was absolutely brilliant in this Winter’s Tragedy: A Tragedy, Alonso delivers his lines like giving a satirical news report, and is about as imposing of a ruler in his Thanksgiving dress up like a pilgrim hat as wet cardboard.
Other male characters include Calder Burgam’s Sebastian, who steals all scenes with confidence and acting chops, but who wets his hubris at the tricks of Grace McGookey’s bothersome Ariel, the Airy Spirit. Rounding out the men is the Dwight Trice’s effeminate Ferdinand. Trice, however, is far too caught up in preserving some unwanted vestige of presumed masculinity to notice that he’s just a little kid all wrapped up in puppy love.
All in all for a night of Theatre, The Tempest is a lot of bang for your buck. It effectively presents the opportunity to redefine what it means to have power, and what it means for power to be in relationship with gender. Another impressively intricate display by Festival Playhouse, Shakespeare’s classic work will wow you into a world of mystery and ambition.
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The Tempest continues as part of the Festival Playhouse at Kalamazoo College, Friday and Saturday, May 21 and 22, at 8:00 pm at the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse and on Sunday May 23 at 2:00 pm. Tickets, $5.00 for students.
The Kosmopolitan Online would like to formally apologize to master builder and Production Design chief Jon Reeves for spelling his name on what might be upwards of seven instances with an “h”. “He might not even be a Jonathan,” we are told. In a token of repentance, the extraordinary Mr. Reeves will receive a commemorative replica of the one millionth dollar bill donated to the Kosmopolitan Online Charity Foundation.