A Thousand Twangling Instruments: Shakespeare's Tempest makes beautiful music at Shelby Farms

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Good fooling in The Tempest
  • Good fooling in The Tempest

'Nature made me happy and good, and if I am otherwise, it is society's fault."— Rousseau, Emile

"Man isn't a noble savage, he's an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved... I'm interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it's a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure."— Stanley Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange

Now I will believe that there are unicorns! - William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 3.3

The best thing about the Tennessee Shakespeare Company's production of The Tempest was driving past the bison herd on my way to the Shelby Farms amphitheater. That sounds like I'm taking a jab at the show and maybe I am a little. But only a little. The thing is, you just can't direct nature. And at the end of a beautiful night it was nature not nurture that made my evening with Prospero and the gang such a wonder.

No set piece, no costume, and no lengthy passage of descriptive poetry—not even Shakespeare's— can transport a person from the grinding realities of a concrete jungle and put them in a more primitive frame of mind like the sight of grazing bison silhouetted against a perfectly pink and violet sunset.

The night I attended was warm enough for shirtsleeves and cool enough not to be plagued by bugs. A steady breeze that smelled of rain rustled artificially-lit leaves on real trees breathing honest life into Kyle Davis's Saturday morning kid's show set. Intermitent gusts tussled hair, tossed robes, and blew spirals of dust into the lights like some comic book illustration of supernatural powers.

Prospero, Shakespeare's vengeful wizard is always calling up some kind of madness and it didn't hurt one bit that nature decided to be a good improv partner.

Prospero's island is presented as a grass-covered rock inhabited by spirits, and dotted with glowing orbs like something from the original Land of the Lost TV show. Bruce Bui's period costumes are nicely detailed, and music by avant cellest Zoe Keating and contemporary sacred music composer Arvo Part hits all the right emotional notes.

The design elements can be as cheesy as one of those original Star Trek episodes where the Enterprise crew finds itself stranded on a strange planet that has improbably evolved into some perverted reflection of Earth's past. Silly? Sure. "Shakespearian"? Oh, you bet! And the werewolf costumes are a real howl. But it's also a magical vision in the woods, and on a beautiful night, hard not to love.

The Tempest is a play that lends itself to interpretation. I'm not talking gimmick. There's simply a lot of space to explore how these broadly-drawn characters relate to one another in a nearly but not quite allegorical framework. Most interpretations will highlight the play's theatricality and self-awareness or else its sketchier political themes. Some— the very best in my opinion— exist in a rarified place where performance art and politics intersect.

Director Dan McCleary has played down much of the torment and exploitation and embraced the play's musical nature, its abundant theatricality and good fooling. That's probably the right choice for a family attraction in such a lush natural setting. Still, there's a little something lost along the way.

Prospero uses his magics to gain mastery over Island spirits. He keeps them in check with a cocktail of torments, pleasures, and the promise of freedom. No wonder it's so often imagined as an imperfect metaphor for the New World, colonialism, and lingering Eurocentric biases. A wizard seeking refuge from homeland hostilities brings his daughter and his own version of civilization to a savage land. In this wild place he teaches language to Caliban, the malformed son of a witch who was the island's original master. The "kindness" is repaid with curses, revenge fantasies, and a poetic vision that rivals even the Master's.

Calaban is Prospero's photo negative but sympathetic only to a point. He's a beast that dreams of rape and murder. And he might accomplish all of these things if he wasn't a such a natural addict given to pathetic drunkenness.

Prospero is similarly motivated by convoluted visions of justice but for all of his personal vendettas he finds the practical benefits of forgiveness, which is both an unnatural act and the cornerstone of human possibility


Director Dan McCleary has brought together a capable ensemble.

Quinton Guyton makes Calicban a tattooed islander and not much of a monster at all. He's cranky and slightly dull but never a real threat to anybody, and that makes things less interesting than they might be. Guyton is also very funny, and uncommonly free.

There's no getting around it. Ariel's costume looks like Slim Goodbody's circulatory system with roach clip wings. But Caley Milliken does solid, energetic work as Prospero's loyal scout and foot soldier (possibly the secret guiding force of the entire narrative). She's especially fine as a disembodied head at a spectral tea party so glow-y and gossamer it could pass for a scene in a Tim Burton movie.

Slim meets an airy spirit (with a tabor!)
  • Slim meets an airy spirit (with a tabor!)

Johnny Lee Davenport has a lot of presence but nuance isn't his strong suit. I didn't like his Oberon in TSC's intimate indoor production of A Midsummer Nights Dream at all. Every line shouted in cadence, every movement stiff and artificial. If his Prospero is better if it's only because the acting style that made him such an annoying indoor fairy king works better under the big trees and far away stars. Davenport does a lot of Shakespeare. He knows where the jokes are and what Prospero wants is always clear. Who Prospero is, is a lesser concern.

And sometimes when he'd consult his magic books, it really seemed like he might be reading his lines. I'm not saying that's what was happening, but the action was confused and confusing.

The young lovers are young and lovely enough but the best part of this Tempest is the burlesque comedy, especially Shawn Knight's slurring, stumbling, gloating, Stephano.

In many ways TSC's Tempest exceded expectations but it let me down sorely in others. Like Prospero, I'm compelled to forgive. In the world of Shakespeare's imagination times spent in wild placess tend to be transformational and a night in the forest can be its own reward. All the pretty words and glowing pictures are as good an excuse as any. And if you happen upon this vision in the wilderness on just the right night, when the moon's hanging low and wind blows just so, some magic is absolutely guaranteed.

CORRECTION: Kyle Davis, Bruce Bui are identified above (and also on the Tennessee Shakespeare Company's website) as the Tempest's principle designers. This is incorrect. Costumes were designed by Sona Amroyan, and the scenic design is by Roger Hanna. Sorry for the error.

The Tempest is at Shelby Farms through April 22. For additional info you can click this.

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