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Reviewed by:
  • The Tempest
  • James M. Brandon
The Tempest. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Tina Landau. Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago. 26 April 2009.

Until now, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company has never produced a play by Shakespeare in its three decades of existence. Early on, Steppenwolf established a reputation for gritty naturalistic acting in (largely) American plays. However, those who have followed the company over the last fifteen years might be excused for failing to notice the magnitude of the decision to produce the Bard. Under the artistic direction of Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf has consistently produced plays such as A Clockwork Orange (1994) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1996) that might properly be regarded as Shakespearian in scope, and director Tina Landau has been steadily moving through a number of canonical texts with the company, including The Cherry Orchard (2005) and The Diary of Anne Frank (2007). The Tempest was a culmination of her work with Steppenwolf thus far, and fourteen members of the acting ensemble combined under Landau’s direction to make Shakespeare’s first appearance at Steppenwolf a memorable one. Led by Chicago-area theatre icon Frank Galati as Prospero, the cast shone in a thrilling, breathless, and, at times, confusing take on Shakespeare’s last play. This production of The Tempest admirably captured the “imagination” theme of Steppenwolf’s season through its vibrant use of physicality, race, and gender, but did so at the cost of a coherent concept that often defaulted to the chaotic.

It was clear from the very first moments of the production that Steppenwolf was pulling out all of the proverbial stops to create a dynamic production centered in both chaos and physicality. Landau imbued the initial storm sequence with strident movement, using the entire theatre space and a cacophony of sound and fury that rendered nearly all of the actors’ lines completely unintelligible. It was a thrilling sequence, with Ariel flying across the audience on a harness, sailors emerging from every conceivable nook and cranny, creative use of light and scenery, and the kind of primal naturalistic acting one expects from the ensemble. Yet, as the thrilling maelstrom announced what was a truly exciting evening of the theatre, it also signaled a production that was marked by an almost complete lack of conceptual unity, which resulted in both praiseworthy and disjointed moments throughout.

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Frank Galati (center, Prospero) and the cast of The Tempest. (Photo: Michael Brosilow.)

At the heart of this maelstrom were Landau’s interesting uses of race and gender as specific markers. Most interesting was her use of four stellar African American actors in the roles that are vitally important to Prospero: Antonio (James Vincent Meredith), Caliban (K. Todd Freeman), Ariel (Jon Michael Hill), and Miranda (Alana Arenas). Landau avoided the standard postcolonial theme, and race was not central to the production, but it became essential to both Prospero and the audience. There was a single moment between Prospero and Ariel when the bitter spirit’s physicality suggested that he was a sort of minstrel servant, but even without this moment, it was impossible for a contemporary American audience not to notice that all of the primary characters that Prospero must forgive and/or release were black. The racial composition of Prospero’s family [End Page 631]

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Lois Smith (Gonzalo), James Vincent Meredith (Antonio), and Alan Wilder (Sebastian), with Craig Spidle (Alonso) in The Tempest. (Photo: Michael Brosilow.)

[End Page 632]

troubled the standard European/Native reading and enriched the text through its explorations of the possibilities in a seemingly colorblind world. Less successful was the choice to cast Lois Smith in the role of Gonzalo. Gonzalo as a woman suggested new possibilities for the character’s relationship with Prospero, except that Smith played the role as a man, with sideburns to boot. The role suited the hilarious Smith perfectly, but unlike Landau’s successful approach toward “ignoring” race, ignoring a female in the role (in a play that only has one woman) did not bring out more dramatic discoveries, but rather closed off what could have been some interesting avenues for the ensemble to explore.

The defining...


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