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Shakespeare’s ‘Rough Magic’ on a New England Isle

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0199  Wednesday, 24 April 2013

 

From:        David Richman < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         April 24, 2013 9:31:33 AM EDT

Subject:     Shakespeare’s ‘Rough Magic’ on a New England Isle

 

Dear Hardy, 

 

I offer the following as an immodest addendum to your recently posted TLS review on The Tempest.  We staged the play on Appledore Island, a tiny island off the coast of New Hampshire, in August 2005. The Chronicle of Higher Education published this article on our production.  

 

Best,  

David Richman

 

NOTES FROM ACADEME

Shakespeare’s ‘Rough Magic’ on a New England Isle

By ALEXANDER C. KAFKA

Appledore Island, Me.

 

At a bird-banding station, David W. Holmes peers through magnifying attachments to his bifocals, bands and weighs a one-ounce gray and yellow cedar waxwing, then sets her free. Nearby, Wendy Turner, who teaches art at Granite State College, leads some of her 16 watercolor students in rendering the famed garden designed by the 19th-century poet Celia Thaxter.

 

And down the hill, Alonso, the King of Naples; his brother Sebastian; his son Ferdinand; and the usurping Duke of Milan, Antonio, wander ashore in a traumatized daze, their ship wrecked on the jagged rocks in a horrific storm.

 

No more amazement: tell your piteous heart

There’s no harm done.

 

Far south, a real tempest, Katrina, prepares to do grievous harm. But here, on a lovely, clear late-summer’s day in the Isles of Shoals six miles off the coast of Portsmouth, N.H., The Tempest is Shakespeare’s, as rendered by 12 advanced students and two professors from the University of New Hampshire’s drama department.

 

A most strange story. How should Prospero

Be living and be here?

 

“I’ve avoided directing this play because I so much wanted to act in it,” says David Richman, 54, a drama and humanities professor who plays Prospero, the usurped duke who, with his daughter, Miranda, his fairy, Ariel, and his enslaved monster, Caliban, has lived cast away on an uncharted island for a dozen years. There he has perfected his powerful magic, with which he orchestrates the stormy semblance that draws his traitorous brother, Antonio, ashore.

 

Mr. Richman’s friend Jessica A. Bolker is an associate zoology professor and associate director of the Shoals Marine Laboratory, which the university operates jointly with Cornell University on the 95-acre island. She wants to showcase the lab to build support for an environmentally oriented engineering program she envisions, so last summer she suggested to Mr. Richman that he direct a play there. And what better play for an outdoor island performance than Shakespeare’s bittersweet island comedy? But Mr. Richman wanted to act in it, so he asked his colleague David Kaye to direct.

 

“The Davids,” as their students sometimes refer to them, turned the project into a course, “Theatre and the Environment.” The group read and discussed interpretation for a week in May, then broke for the summer for the cast to learn lines and compose tunes for Shakespeare’s songs.  In August the cast had 12 very full days, several of them on the island, to pull the show together for its sole outdoor performance.

 

Mr. Kaye “wanted something very organic,” says Jennifer Charles, 26, who plays several roles and helped design the production. So, to complement Ariel’s scarf-draped white leotard, Caliban’s tailed and hooded green unitard, and the martial uniforms from the department’s costume shop, the cast made masks and large, rustic puppets using tree branches from the mainland adorned with kelp, feathers, sumac, flowers, and ferns from around the island. Mr. Kaye situated the performance on Appledore’s edge, where shrubs would be the wings of the stage and a somewhat treacherous rocky incline to the water would serve as backstage.

 

The audience of 100 would include University of New Hampshire President Ann Weaver Hart and her guests, and devoted parents and friends who forked over $75 a ticket for the show, boat transportation about an hour each way, and a box lunch. With no tall trees on the island for shade or shelter from divebombing gulls, the university hired a company in Manchester, N.H., to put up a tent and chairs on leveled platforms.

 

The cast faced obstacles beyond staying hydrated and avoiding Appledore’s prevalent poison ivy. “I sat in a bunch of briars the other day,” says Seth J. Mazzaglia, the 22-year-old senior who plays Alonso. To maneuver “backstage,” he explains, “we’ve got to book it across those rocks, but we can’t go too fast or we’ll hurt ourselves.”

 

“I’m a natural baritone,” says Mr. Richman, but to be heard above the gulls, a generator, and the faint, regular foghorn of nearby White Island, he had to go into tenor. “It’s really skirting around the upper register,” he says.

 

A couple of months before, the cast might have had to carry sticks over their heads, as Mr. Kaye did when he was scouting locations, because the thousands of gulls, in full assemblage, would target the highest point they could find. Fewer and calmer in late August, however, they prove a wonderfully spontaneous, natural element in the staging. One, for instance, makes an emphatic cameo, its cry punctuating Prospero’s warning to Ferdinand against breaking his newly beloved Miranda’s “virgin-knot” before marriage.

 

The production posed other challenges for Mr. Richman, who has been blind since childhood from over-oxygenation as a premature baby. He is well oriented in his customary home and office, but on the rocks, paths, steps, and narrow boardwalks of the rugged island, he says, “I’m entirely dependent on my cast-mates and everyone is making sure that I get to where I need to be.” On the set, 21-year-old Harmony Stempel’s Ariel is often Prospero’s guide.

 

The production could have ignored Mr. Richman’s sightlessness, says Mr. Kaye, not an impossibility for an actor whom (Mr. Richman grinningly recalls) a critic once found unconvincing as a blind man. Instead, Mr. Kaye explains during a lunch break, they worked the blindness into their interpretation. In Prospero’s “journey into the world of the mystic,” he says, “sight simply isn’t necessary.” It is “even an encumbrance.” Prospero “trades it for deeper, inner sight,” he explains, one he’s on the verge of losing, along with his humanity, in his thirst for vengeance.

 

Prospero, Mr. Richman says, has been “stewing on this God-forsaken little rock of an island for 12 years” and “begins the play in a kind of apoplectic fury.” But while “many of Shakespeare’s tragedies are about devolution,” he says, with the main characters becoming less human as the plot progresses, in the case of Prospero, “through a difficult struggle, he becomes a better human being.”

 

To highlight Prospero’s imperiled humanity, the cast discarded the notion of “the kindly wizard and his innocent daughter,” says Samantha L. Cistulli, 19, who plays Miranda. “I told her,” says Mr. Richman, “how much my own daughter, who is 22, stands up to me.” And Ms. Cistulli says she found a little bit more fire in her role. “His daughter gave me permission to really let him have it,” she says.

 

Prospero as oppressor is emphasized further by the bitterness of the monster he has imprisoned. “Caliban lives in three realms—fear, hatred, and awe. It was hard for me to wrap my head around that,” says Tucker Cummings, a congenial 19-year-old who plays the role and somehow often gets cast as evil characters. (She thinks it may be because she’s tall.)

 

The grudging last-act reconciliation between Prospero and his brother is nearly wordless in the text. But here, 21-year-old Hayley E. Bagwell’s Antonio warily approaches Prospero and gently takes his hand to guide him. That contact is a brilliant, shivery moment reflecting Prospero’s realization that “the rarer action is/In virtue than in vengeance.”

 

“This rough magic/I here abjure,” says Prospero, ultimately renouncing his conjuring powers—as Shakespeare did too after this, his last play.

 

But as the wowed viewers head back to Portsmouth, and the island shrinks in the Y-shaped wake of the Gulf Challenger, the magic of the production lingers on, no less so for its strange improbability. Appledore will soon be abandoned for the inaccessible winter months, and who will imagine that on its rocky banks this story was so recently and cleverly told?

 

Some subtilties o' the isle will not let you

Believe things certain.

 

As Mr. Kaye told the gathered visitors before the performance: “You really are a unique audience. This is like air—it will dissipate and it will be gone.”

 
 

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.