For David M. Jenkins, Jobsite Theatre’s artistic director, keeping Shakespeare’s 500-year-old plays alive and appreciated is a consuming mission.
“It’s of vital importance to us,” he says, “that we find ways to produce Shakespeare so that what people come and see onstage is a mirror to, and is reminiscent of, the world they live in now.”
The Jenkins-directed production of The Tempest, opening Jan. 19, takes a few liberties. Not the dialogue, of course; only plebeians “modernize” the Bard’s spellbinding verse. No, it’s all there, as written.
Here’s one thing: Prospero, the Duke of Milan, the protagonist and central character portrayed in one memorable film after another by the likes of Gielgud and Olivier, is a woman in this production.
Overthrown by her jealous brother, Prospero — a self-taught sorcerer — has been exiled to a remote island with her young daughter, Miranda. When we meet them at story’s commencement, they’ve been there for 20 years.
“As we know, Shakespeare didn’t write a whole lot of roles for women,” Jenkins explains. “Nor was diversity of any kind on his mind. When I go through the text of Shakespeare, I go ‘OK, what happens here when you start playing around with gender? What happens if these roles get re-assigned to men?”
In this adaptation, “Prospero being made a woman is not being commented on; it simply is,” observes Roxanne Fay, who has the starring role. “She’s a woman of power, she’s a smart woman, she learned the white magic arts. Prospero’s sin, if you will, is just being so dedicated to ‘bettering the mind’ with these liberal arts that she neglected her duty as the Duke to really govern. And just sort of cast that onto her brother.
“Her brother got used to being the de facto Duke, and he liked it.”
Along with Miranda (Emily Belvo), Prospero’s magical island-mates are a sprite called Ariel (played by aerial silk artist Katrina Stevenson) and the shape-shifter Caliban (Giles Davis).
When a ship bearing Prospero’s enemies (including her title-stealing brother Antonio) appears on the horizon, the exiled sorceress conjures a storm — a tempest — to maroon them on her island.
The storm, and its aftermath, are depicted through a combination of video projections, lights, sound and music. The Shimberg Theatre stage is back with a giant curved screen, called a cyclorama, or “sike.”
“It’s not like we have this crazy fly space, and we can bring things in from the sky,” Jenkins says. “And it’s not like we have all this wing space that we can bring things in from the sides. So we thought about, how do we find these moments of capitalizing, with what we do have, in terms of theater magic and being able to do things that are going to be spectacular in their simplicity?”
Video projections can change a mood and create an atmosphere in an instant. Jenkins says he’s thrilled with the effect, although “it doesn’t want to be a play about a movie! But all that acts as a backdrop; the performers are acting with, and acting in front of, this digital backdrop. Which is a lot of fun.”
Fay agrees. “The production values in this show are very high,” she gushes. “It’s gorgeous. There are magical things that happen in the show.”
For her, the magic was already there, in the pages of her script.
“Shakespeare’s words have endured, and the stories are so compelling,” she says. “This particular story is very human, at its emotional core.
It’s believed that The Tempest was the final play Shakespeare wrote alone, without a collaborator.
“He’s looking at his life,” Fay observes. “He’s looking at his mortality. He’s looking at what he’s done. But it’s so well-balanced; there’s a great deal of introspection, there’s a great deal of looking past one’s self, and there’s a great deal of humor in this show.
“I get so much pleasure out of just saying those words, and living that story. And having the opportunity to see really great people performing it. And knowing what it does to me to watch it. I hope that someone watching it will go ‘Wow! I love these words.’”