A Tempest on the River’s Side
By Montague Gammon III
Hampton Road’s very own Shakespeare play resurfaces in a striking, and strikingly different, form on the banks of the Elizabeth River this month.
The Tempest, a magic drenched and probably Jamestown-linked fantasy of revenge, forgiveness and romance comes to Town Point Park July 26-28 as a collaborative effort between Festevents and the Virginia Stage Company.
Character puppets twice the size of a tall man join live actors. A genuine tall ship is echoed by a silhouetted miniature. Old poetry is larded with new songs. A huge winged puppet crane flies over the audience.
Karen Scherberger, CEO of Festevents, and Patrick Mullins, director of the show and VSC Associate Artistic Director, chatted about the play and this production in a scene shop side room dominated by the outsized, partially finished puppet heads of fantastical creatures, wildly colored animals and a half-human “monster.”
Scherberger said she has long felt that “we lacked outdoor performing arts presentations,” and that she wanted to “glorify this expanse [of water] that we are on.”
“We are here because of the water,” she noted. Something “very Hampton Roads, very Norfolk, was what was desired.”
In Mullins and the Stage Company, she said, she found “really a kindred spirit and a willing partner, willing to develop outdoor shows.”
The new partnership sought out “something that was a little out of the box and accessible to everybody.”
Mullins credits VSC Artistic Director Chris Hanna with first suggesting The Tempest as an appropriate script.
“It’s one that people recognize,” Scherberger pointed out.
Mullins, who has taught high school English and theatre, is devoted to making this Tempest appeal to a “broad cross section” of people. His take on the revered writer will not intimidate or puzzle the first time playgoer, nor offend the veteran and devoted fan of The Bard.
Entwined themes of romance and revenge lie at the heart of The Tempest.
The romance is the poetical and unfeigned love story of Ferdinand and Miranda. He’s heir to the throne of Naples. Her magician father, Prospero, is the deposed Duke of Milan.
The soft story of vengeance declined involves their parents’ generation.
Many years before the action of the play, Ferdinand’s father had conspired with Prospero’s brother in a coup that sent Prospero and infant Miranda into exile on an apparently unpeopled island. There they found an orphaned semi-human named Caliban and a sprite called Ariel.
“Prospero and his relationships [are] the essence of the story,” says Mullins.
Ariel, whom Prospero freed from a torturous enchantment cast by Caliban’s late mother, the witch Sycorax, became Prospero’s reliable magical servant.
Caliban, once something of a foster child to Prospero, unsuccessfully tried to assault Miranda when she matured, and was forced into menial servitude equivalent to slavery.
Miranda has grown to young womanhood with scant, anecdotal awareness of humans other than her father.
Shakespeare’s play begins on a storm tossed ship, which carries Ferdinand, his father King Alonzo, and the duchy-usurping Antonio. Prospero created the storm which brings the ship, undamaged, aground upon his island. Crew and passengers are unharmed, but so dispersed that few know others have survived.
By play’s end, Prospero has fostered a marriage, regained his Dukedom, thwarted his assassination and Alonzo’s, released Ariel from servitude and Caliban from slavery, forgiven his enemies and his own “rough magic” promised to “abjure.”
Heavily larded with spells and spectacle, The Tempest just begs for imaginative, non-traditional stagecraft. Every technological advance that can serve the performing arts either has, or will in due course, be brought to bear on it.
It’s perfect for an “out of the box” approach.
Puppets may seem low tech, but when they tower twelve feet tall and outnumber the live cast members, or take wing above the heads of their outdoor audience, they have surely slipped the boundaries of any esthetic container familiar to this region.
The VSC/Festevents Tempest puppets are the work of Donovan Zimmerman, co-founder of Paperhand Puppet Intervention. PPI is North Carolina troupe devoted to “multi-scaled and multi-disciplinary puppet performances that are “a synthesis of many art forms including (but not limited to):sculpting, painting, music, dance, improvisation, costume/set design and theater,” according to their web site.
Norfolk native, and Christopher Newport University alumnus, Jake Hull composed and recorded new songs for the production. “Jake’s stuff is about freedom,” says Mullins, and ties in well with the “different levels of freedom that are discussed in the play.”
The plot of The Tempest is less clearly derived from one source than are the plots of Shakespeare’s other plays, but a significant part might have been inspired by a true story.
Therein lies the trail to Hampton Roads.
One William Strachey, en route to Jamestown from England on a ship called the Sea Venture, was caught in a hurricane. Other ships sailing with his went on to Jamestown; The Sea Venture was run aground on uninhabited Bermuda.
Not a soul was lost, and after some ten months, the crew and passengers cobbled together two smaller ships seaworthy enough to complete the journey to Virginia. Strachey’s manuscript account of the adventure bears enough resemblance to bits of The Tempest that a considerable body of opinion finds a plausible connection between the two.
Sidelight One: Christopher Newport captained the Sea Venture. Passengers included the married John Rolfe, whose wife and child died on Bermuda, and who later married Pocahontas, and one Stephen Hopkins, who apparently returned to England, and then came back to America to stay, in 1620, on the Mayflower.
Sidelight Two: Strachey was a published poet, and patron and frequenter of theatres in London before his 16 month stay in Virginia, and is known to have been a friend of Shakespeare’s literary contemporaries. His signet wring was unearthed in Jamestown in 1996.
So there lay buried, for 385+ years, the ring that graced the hand that (maybe) shook the hand that penned the greatest plays the world has known, the hand that wrote the show that entertains Hampton Roads today.
How cool is that?
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Virginia Stage Company and Festevents
Town Point Park, Norfolk
8:30 p.m. July 26 & 27; 6:30 p.m. July 28
Shows preceded by A Midsummer’s Fantasy Festival
6 p.m. Fri & Sat., 4 p.m. Sun.