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Arts and Entertainment

Drury University Theatre Produces Shakespeare's "The Tempest"

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Photo: Drury University
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Drury University Theatre’s third production of the 2020-21 season will open next Wednesday March 10: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, to be performed in Wilhoit Theatre on the Drury campus. Dr. Mick Sokol, Drury Professor of Theatre, directs this production, and joined us on “Arts News” to talk about the spooky, supernatural, and just plain fun elements in the play.   

“Yeah, there's a lot of magic involved. It's a lot of fun. I think it's mostly a comedy—it certainly ends happily. It’s got a lot of physical humor. It's a crowd pleaser, there's no two ways about it. You've got lots of spectacle with the storm and all that stuff. And it's a  fun show.”

I found a one-sentence synopsis of The Tempest at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website, https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/, though of course they go into a lot more detail about the work: “A crew of men are shipwrecked on a magical island and tormented by an old man and his slaves.”

“It's a BIT more complex than that,” said Dr. Sokol with a chuckle. “It’s a story of revenge, forgiveness. There's love. There are all sorts of things going on. You have, you know, a collection of characters. And I think this is one of Shakespeare's great gifts. He has all these different plots going together in different groups of people. And then somehow, in the last scenes, they all come together and it all weaves into one.”

The lead character, Prospero (or Prospera, played by a woman in the Drury production) has his reasons for causing all this trouble. “Prospera has been deposed as the duke or duchess of Milan, and her enemies just happen to be coming by in a boat. So she raises the storm, crashes them on the island and essentially torments them and wants to punish them--but then has a moment of forgiveness.” (One of the boat’s inhabitants happens to be Prospera’s treacherous siblings; another is the King of Naples.The King’s son Ferdinand, thought to be dead, turns up alive and falls in love with Prospero’s daughter Miranda, which eventually serves to reunite the families.) “It's a really nice story, wrapped up with a big, tight bow on it. I think it's one of Shakespeare's best plays, actually,” said Dr. Sokol.

Prospera is a magician, and the spirits she commands are essentially “part of the island, so the island comes alive. So we’ve got people coming out of all nooks and crannies. The island itself is on a (stage) turntable, so it spins around and you see all different sides of it. So it’s got a lot of eye candy,” added Sokol. “I mean, it's written that way. It's written to include eye candy. But as you say, there's a happy ending. The families are reunited. All the conflict is resolved at the end.

Prospera also grants her main spirit-servant, Ariel, her freedom (again, a female playing what is usually a male role). Dr. Sokol said Ariel is “the character who does the things that Prospera commands.  And so we have a number of spirits, and we are addressing them as ‘elementals.’ We’ve got a lot of fancy costumes out there—it all looks very, very beautiful.”

Sokol has a cast of 19 for this show—“the biggest cast I’ve ever had.” In addition to working around all the usual time conflicts college theatre students have to deal with, there was also the snow, ice and extreme cold of a couple of weeks ago, which really “complicated the rehearsal process,” said Dr. Sokol. “We actually did a number of rehearsals on Zoom, which I had never done before. But it's like, well, we can't get to the campus to rehearse. Right? Well, everyone is so used to Zoom for classes. So on the one hand, we couldn't work out the blocking and the physical comedy and all that. But the other hand, it gave us a lot of opportunity to work with the language, which, of course is a big challenge for any actor with Shakespeare, but particularly for young actors. If the actor doesn’t know the (meaning of) the line they’re saying, the audience has no chance. In a lot of ways it worked out well.”

And then there’s COVID-19, which complicates both the staging and the audience seating for the show. “Everyone onstage is in a mask,” said Sokol, and audience members will be required to wear facemasks. Social distancing will, of course, be practiced, although as Sokol noted, “if you arrive in a group of four, you can sit four people together. But the next group will be six feet (away from your group).” And single people will be kept at least six feet away from everyone else. He said they can get more people in the theater if there are numerous groups of, say, four to six people. Basically, seating capacity will be about 25 percent of the normal Wilhoit Theatre house, so somewhere between 50 and 70 audience members at each performance.

How does social distancing work when staging love scenes between Ferdinand  and Miranda? “They can hold hands!” said Dr. Sokol. “We probably get them a little closer than arm’s length, but at the same time they’re not ‘in each other’s business,’ that’s for sure. And they’re wearing masks. We’ve modernized (the play’s setting) a bit, to say the least—a few things. I’ve blended in a lot of Bob Dylan music. The costumes are very ‘60s, Carnaby and hippy.” Sokol has also edited the text to shorten the evening.  “I think it’s a big part of Shakespeare that people don’t want to be in the audience in the theatre for three hours, so now it runs right about 90 minutes.”

Performances of The Tempest are scheduled for March 10-13 in Wilhoit Theatre: Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30, and an extra Saturday afternoon matinee on March 13th at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $3 to $14 and are available Monday through Friday 1:00 to 5:00pm from the Wilhoit Theatre box office inside the Breech School of Business on the Drury campus.  The box office phone number is 873-7255, or tickets can be ordered at https://drury.edu/theatre -- click on the “Tickets” link.