The Whitney Theatre, whose layout transforms with every performance, never ceases to impress me. In this year’s production of The Tempest, the black-box becomes the home of Prospero, (Eric Sirakian, ’18), his daughter Miranda (Ashley Greaves, ’16) and his servants Ariel (Jamila Tyler, ’15) and Caliban (Lucy Fleming, ’16). The former Duke of Milan, Prospero plots to exact revenge upon his brother Antonio (Kyra Riley, ’16), who has stolen the title from him. In order to do so, he conjures up a devastating storm that throws Antonio’s ship against the island’s coast. With an image of a Somali shore projected onto the back wall, the audience becomes an extension of the beach.
Tom Delgado DRA ’09 creates a visually stunning lighting design: branch-shaped silhouettes spill across the floor, a whimsical green light illuminates the back wall where the show’s poster image is projected. Jagged root-like lines and sunrays appear throughout the show in pools of azure and gold light, creating a truly magical atmosphere inside the Whitney.
Unlike many other directors whose projects go up in the space, theater studies professor Toni Dorfman focuses on depth rather than linearity: A large portable dance floor occupies most of the set and two wooden decks stand upstage framed by black muslin curtains. Throughout the performance, actors storm, dance and tumble onto the stage from all directions, accompanied by deafening sounds of thunder and crashing waves. These visual and auditory effects establish the tone of the play right from the opening and also provide important plot clues for the audience. Ariel, for instance, appears onstage with specific sound and light cues that represent her ethereal nature.
This immersive experience, however, doesn’t last as the actors transition into monologues which are, essentially, one-dimensional. Though the ensemble’s study of the text is evident and praise-worthy, the characters’ relationships are lackluster. They seem uncomfortably distant from each other, too involved in their own lines and too hesitant to fully engage with scene partners.
A notable exception is Fleming, who brings the necessary urgency to the story. She enlivens Caliban with her astonishing physical and vocal variation. I found myself yearning for her to crawl back on stage in another angry fit.
By deciding to set this work in Somalia, Professor Dorfman adds a sense of relevancy to The Tempest. However, the reasoning behind this choice isn’t entirely clear: While the costume design and the projection slideshow anchor the production’s concept, the concept itself doesn’t quite connect with the original text. Even though those design choices distract more than they inform, they certainly add freshness to this fairly familiar work.
Despite its flaws, this performance presented the theater community with a myriad of opportunities. Not only was the casting race-blind and gender-blind, the production also gave many theater artists who usually remain offstage an opportunity to be in the spotlight.