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Shakespearean plays represent a cornerstone of classical dramaturgy. The captivating plots and characters have formed an iconic aura that has challenged many theater experts. Sir Antony Cher, a renowned actor, is attributed the quote which defines the nature of Shakespearean production, “The first and most important lesson is that there are no rules about how to do Shakespeare, just clues. Everything is negotiable” (“Antony Sher Quotes”).
The Blackfriars Playhouse of the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) attempts an unorthodox approach to producing the playwright’s famous works. By mimicking the style of performance that scholars and historians have established to have existed at the end of the 16th century in England, the staging brings forward certain originality. The troupe’s adaptation of The Tempest is an entertaining and creative introspective that makes the performance truly memorable.
In The Tempest, Prospero is a powerful magician living on a magical island with his daughter Miranda, a spirit servant Ariel, and the native Caliban as his slave. Robbed of power and exiled from his homeland, he seeks justice. With Ariel’s help, Prospero maroons his enemies on the island and manipulates them to do his bidding by using mind-bending powers. The characters are driven to their respective fates with Ferdinand meeting Miranda and winning her heart. While Prospero’s brother along with the king, who betrayed and exiled him, seek mercy realizing their wrongdoings. In the end, all is forgiven, and everyone is ready to return home. Prospero releases Ariel and gives up his powers for the greater good (Shakespeare 2001).
Blackfriars Playhouse is built as a copy of the original stage in 16th century England. The staging area consists of the main raised wooden platform with two entrances behind it. There are two levels of viewing balconies forming an arch shape around the stage providing diverse viewpoints. The whole auditorium and stage are made from high-quality, polished wood of soft color, creating an atmosphere of antiquity. On the ceiling and walls, there are lights that mimic the shape and eerie shimmer of candles. The whole theater is illuminated for the cast to be able to see viewers’ reactions and interact with the audience.
There is no elaborate set design and rotating backgrounds common in modern theater productions. Due to the Shakespearean nature of the Blackfriars Playhouse, the stage is bare in most cases with only some important scenery objects brought out when appropriate. Like the original Blackfriars Theater, the actors utilize the balcony, entrances, and curtains at the back of the stage for elements of the play such as hiding, addressing crowds, or speaking to a figure of power (Carafano).
The cast of the ASC performs numerous works of the great playwright throughout the year, usually with little preparation. While a professional production, there are obvious budget constraints. Obviously, the nature of these performances focuses more on the quality of acting and message of the plays rather than elaborate effects and costuming. The Tempest has a very diverse spectrum of characters, and this production chose to use costuming as a medium to depict their unique personalities.
After reading the play, there are certain stereotypical expectations that are instantly crushed by this rendition. Prospero, who can be imagined as a powerful bearded magician is portrayed by a large, intimidating actor of color that is bald and shaven. Dressed in purple robes and carrying a wooden carved staff, the role is presented as eccentric but monumental. Miranda wore a dress made of worn fabric to show her simple life and dedication to innocence on the island.
Caliban, so revoltingly described as a nasty creature in the play, is portrayed by an athletic man wearing a webbed bodysuit, creating the effect that he is half-man, half-monster. In a way, the monstrous costume is an extent of Caliban’s personality. Ariel is played by a man while the character in the script is a female spirit. He is wearing nothing but a black skirt and a feather boa, representing his interconnectivity with nature. The magical singularity is further portrayed by heavy makeup on his body and face, making the actor look unnatural.
Script and Acting
Productions at the American Shakespeare Center attempt to stick to the original script, so there were no omitted parts. It seems that the production crew took the liberty of adding musical numbers and elements to the play. This reflected especially on Ariel, who was carrying a banjo or ukulele in every act. The artistic approach of giving Ariel musicality conforms to how Shakespearean scholars describe the spirit while also helping to captivate the crowd.
Due to the simplistic nature of the production, there was a lack of special effects that can be complex in some theaters, creating the imperative mood and atmosphere for the scene. Even amateur productions have staff working with lighting to create focus, shadowing, and transitions. Meanwhile, sound mixing can add minute details of reality to the staging. None of that exists at Blackfriars Playhouse, with actors having to use mechanical effects, but mostly the skill of using their body language and voice to tell the story.
When such instances occur, the cast utilizes metatheatrical devices, essentially drawing attention to the unrealistic nature of the performance. The actors may address the audience directly as they were part of the play and use comical devices to create humor. Metatheatre “heightens the audience’s awareness of the ruptures in the theatrical experience” (Loomis and Ray 213). Perhaps a unique aspect in this theater, practiced during the Elizabethan era, is the seating of select audience members on the stage. Other than giving an immersive feeling, it allows for the cast to entertain by breaking the fourth wall and briefly interacting with the viewers, often in an embarrassing manner.
The American Shakespeare Center utilizes what is known as the unitary model of dramaturgy, with a single theatrical expert having authority and influence over the staging of the play. The small staff and quick rotating cycle of production work with this model as it allows for coherence and effectiveness (Caldwell and Kenny 14). It is evident during the performance, the actors working as a synchronized unit on stage, with a clear sense of direction and understanding.
Comprehension of the script shows in their actions which puts emphasis on dialogue and pronunciation, as Shakespearean verses are articulately exalted through the Playhouse in Iambic Pentameter. Prospero transcends with his voice and verse, creating a majestic sorcerer aura around him. Ariel, with his music, creates a certain charm, and with the longing begging to be set free, gains sympathy for his character. Even characters that seem to limit imagination for the actors showed overwhelmingly varied expression. Overall, most of the actors could skillfully create a juxtaposition between comedy and tragedy in their characters, elements of which are so defining to this iconic masterpiece.
The performance of The Tempest at Blackfriars Playhouse, while uncomplicated in production compared to many theaters, is incredibly compelling. The lack of complicated special effects and set pieces put the audience focus completely on the actors. With a cast so talented, the viewer is engaged throughout the whole act. They experience the vivid emotional and moral journey of the characters, a catharsis for the soul. This is possible through the incredible acting mastery of the ensemble at the American Shakespeare Center, staging an impressive dramatic production.
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“Antony Sher Quotes.” Goodreads. Web.
Caldwell, William Casey, and Amy Kenny. “The Reconstructed Dramaturg.” Theatre Topics, vol. 24, no. 1, 2014, pp. 11–23., Web.
Carafano, Meghan. “Shakespeare’s Theater.” Folger Shakespeare Library. 2015. Web.
Loomis, Catherine, and Sid Ray. Shaping Shakespeare for Performance: The Bear Stage. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Penguin Books, 2001.