Shakespeare Miami takes on ‘The Tempest’

From last year's Shakespeare Miami production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Though she loves its poetic language, indelible characters and universally appealing story of revenge and forgiveness, Colleen Stovall is a little bit afraid of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Which is why, as the producing artistic director of Shakespeare Miami, she had to mount a production of it.

“I’ve been kind of avoiding it,” she confesses. “But we’ve been doing the lighter comedies, so I thought it was time to take on something really challenging.”

Starting Friday, Shakespeare Miami — a professional, nonprofit theater group that promotes cultural literacy through free performances — will perform The Tempest for three successive weekends in Miami, Hollywood and Coconut Grove. The idea is Shakespeare in the Park, Miami-style: Bring a chair or a blanket and enjoy a no-pressure evening with the Bard.

Founded in 2005, Shakespeare Miami has staged a variety of works, from such comedies as Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing to the ever-popular tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The Tempest, however, is more complex: The exiled Prospero, stranded with his daughter Miranda on an island, uses magic to seek revenge on his usurping brother by shipwrecking him and his men on the same island. Regarded as the playwright’s final work by many critics, the play blends broadly comedic hijinks with a gentle love story, surly rebellion (in the form of the twisted and resentful Caliban, one of Prospero’s servants) and bittersweet regret.

Stovall, an executive assistant to the president of Perry Ellis International who donates her time to Shakespeare Miami, decided her production would use a female Prospero — or Prospera — a la Julie Taymor’s 2010 film version, which starred Helen Mirren.

“It’s been there in the back of my mind,” she says. “You go back to the words. The power of the play is in the words, not in the size of the guy saying them. … The text is the skeleton to hang stuff on. As long as you’re true to the text and to the story, it gives you so much freedom to tell the story your way. That’s why these plays have delighted us through the centuries.”

Cathy Orlando, who plays Prospera, has worked with Shakespeare Miami before, playing Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, Maria in Twelfth Night and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She had dreamed of playing the lead in The Tempest — and why not, since we are such stuff as dreams are made on? — but figured she’d never get the chance. Her best hope when she auditioned was that Stovall might change the sex of one of the comic characters for her.

“I was very excited,” says Orlando, who studied with Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, and hopes that training will see her through Prospero’s more difficult speeches. “In the tragedies you rarely find older female characters. Prospero is one of the characters I like because he goes through a lot of changes. … I’m going into it knowing the difficulty of having to convey information and trying to make it as delightful as possible.”

The cast also includes visiting actors Edward Lewis French (from London) as the ethereal spirit Ariel and Tess Brenner (from New York) as Miranda. The set design (by Stovall) is a minimalist affair; after all, it must be packed up and moved to three different venues.

Shakespeare Miami will also offer a special show for students from 10:30 a.m. to noon Jan. 30 at The Barnacle State Historic Park (schools can register to attend at shakespearemiami.com) Instead of a full-blown production, the actors perform short scenes and then discuss historical context, director’s choices or other related topics.

“To get kids to sit still in broad daylight in a park, it’s insanity,” Stovall says. “So we came up with Short Attention Span Theater. We’ll play a scene, then break it down, then play another scene and talk about that. We bring the kids up to do a Shakespeare rap. We make it fast-paced and lively. Our goal is to get them to come back to the full show with their families.”

Introducing kids to Shakespeare, Stovall believes, isn’t as difficult as some may think (Orlando, a retired middle school drama teacher, says she used to engage her students by teaching them some of the Bard’s more pithy insults).

“I believe in a civil society, you have to have educated, literate people,” Stovall says. “People don’t always have access to the arts. The arts teach us stuff. They charge our emotions. It’s so important that everyone have access. People say Shakespeare is too much for kids. No, it’s not. In a park setting you can get up and go for a walk. You can leave at intermission. It’s much less intimidating. I think as we build our company hopefully we can have this in the community for a long time.”

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