Theater Review: The Tempest by Unseam’d Shakespeare

The Tempest, or the Enchanted Isle. By William Shakespeare, John Dryden, and William Davenant, adapted by Scott Palmer. Directed by Michael Hood. With Ron Siebert, Colleen Pulawski, Claire Chapelli, Nicholas Browne, Nick Benninger, Thomas Constantine Moore, Jennifer Tober, Kevin Donohue, Brett Sullivan Santry, Charles Beikert, Michael Perrotta, Marc Epstein, Connor McCanlus, Andrew Miller. Unseam’d Shakespeare Co. June 13 through 29. Studio Theater, University of Pittsburgh (basement of Cathedral of Learning).

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Even before the lights dimmed for Unseam’d Shakespeare’s The Tempest, or the Enchanted Isle, the scenery prepared us for a charming and tongue-in-cheek performance: A gaily painted faux proscenium and footlights, rows of curling waves, flats representing tropical palms and horrid caves.“This is not Shakespeare’s play,” director Michael Hood warned us in the program.

Shakespeare Improved was the title of a 1920s collection of Shakespearean plays presented in Restoration times. How improved? Change the ending, add rhyme, sentimentalize, do whatever you care to. The Restoration era in England was the return of the repressed, with a vengeance. The Puritan Parliament had closed the theaters in 1642, had executed King Charles, and had ruled for more than a decade. When, after civil war, the Stuart king Charles II came to the throne, the atmosphere was libertine and frothy, and the restored stage was too. Why, women’s roles were taken by women!

Unseam’d Shakespeare previously presented John Dryden’s All for Love, a classicized tragedy imitating Antony and Cleopatra. (Disclosure: For a time I was on Unseam’d Shakespeare’s board.) Dryden “reformed” Shakespeare’s play by concentrating the action in time and place—Dryden knew Aristotle’s rules. But that came later. This Tempest is another kettle of fish. It may remind you of Gilbert and Sullivan. The adaptors and the director are out to maximize the fun and farce, and they wink and nod and camp it up from the moment that Ron Siebert as Prospero steps over the cardboard waves and pretends not to know his lines. Which is not to say that they throw Shakespeare into the trash. No, you will hear Shakespeare’s glorious language, particularly the songs (with contemporary music composed by David Martynuik), sung by a graceful, campy Ariel (Kevin Donohue). You will see the comedy of the low characters, wonderfully funny in the performance. It’s just that Davenant et al. admired Shakespeare’s conceptions so much that they couldn’t get enough of them. Did Shakespeare’s Tempest have an innocent young woman who has never seen a young man? Well, then, let’s have TWO such young women. And let’s have a young man who has never seen a woman. (Why not? He’s been imprisoned in a rock for his whole life.) Do you like Caliban, the morally and physically repugnant half-human in Shakespeare’s Tempest? Let’s give him an equally lecherous (and nearly nude) sister! And let’s make the most of the opportunities these new characters give us for smutty pursuits!

The large cast (three of whom are Equity actors) and the technical crew are excellent. Unseam’d Shakespeare’s Tempest was an entertaining evening.
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