As I crept around backstage through hallways and tunnels to visit a recent technical rehearsal, I saw dressing room signs that read “Islanders” and “Neapolitans.” The Ithaca Shakespeare Company has taken over the Hangar Theatre for their production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest from February 14 – 23.
That’s just one of the witty backstage touches that I love about the ISC. To be clear, this is not one of those theatrical previews where the actors and crew are kept at journalistic arms’ length. I performed in their first production of The Tempest at Risley Hall in 2002, covered their subsequent productions, and charted their growth over the years.
I have also worked with them on recent productions of The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve seen how things work at their Fall Creek Studios location in the winter, and I’ve sweated it out in humid hell for weeks at the Cornell Plantation shows, which are the group’s signature event; everyone in the company are past colleagues for me. They are dear, dear friends. So forget about journalistic objectivity from here on out.
The Tempest is set on a remote island, where Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, plots to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place using illusion and skillful manipulation. With help of the spirit Ariel (played here by six actors, Melanie Uhlir, Judith Andrew, Paige Anderson, Marissa Biondolillo, Sujata Sidhu Gibson and Danielle Bates), he conjures up a storm, the eponymous tempest, to lure his usurping brother Antonio and the complicit King Alonso of Naples to the island. There is a comic subplot involving two shipwrecked stewbums who discover Prospero’s misbegotten servant Caliban—along with wine that washed ashore—and stumble around the island playing God and ordering Caliban about. Meanwhile, Prospero’s machinations bring about the revelation of Antonio’s lowly nature, the redemption of the King, and the marriage of Miranda to Alonso’s son, Ferdinand.
As I made my way to the stage, AmArA’s set knocked me out. It was stunning, depicting Prospero’s grass and bamboo hut stage left, and a very convincing U-shape of rock formations that frame an exit on stage right.
If there were any doubts that this was a tech rehearsal, they were dashed. Director Stephen Ponton hovered mid-house, quietly discussing lighting cues and levels with his crew. The actors stood on their marks, patiently waiting for instructions. At least Michael Donato, playing Prospero, had a sturdy wooden staff to lean on during long breaks.
The company specifically picked this play to produce at the Hangar; for those who have watched the group evolve from the Roy Nearing Summer House—a connection forged by ISC founding member Melanie Uhlir, who also designs the group’s imaginative graphics and posters—to the Arboretum to Fall Creek Studios and various performances “on the road” in Auburn will notice lighting and special effects that could not be done anywhere else.
“We love performing outside in the summers, and we love working in our studio facility at Fall Creek Studios,” said Ponton. “Performing at the Hangar allows us to do things on a technical level that we wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else, and we’re taking full advantage of those capabilities for The Tempest. This is a play that starts aboard a ship in a massive storm and then moves to a remote island, and it involves spirits and magic and a variety of supernatural effects. The size and technical capabilities of the Hangar will allow us to bring all of these elements to life in a very exciting way, and that was a major factor in choosing to do this particular play.”
I headed for the lobby, turned right and walked in on a fight scene. Dave Dietrich, Paul Hansom, Lloyd Harris, Gavin Keaty and former County Judge John Sherman were running through a scene with some fight choreography and weapons. As they ran the scene, I talked to Peter Shuman, an accomplished wag in the Shakespeare mode, who is playing Trinculo in his scenes with Caliban. “Steve likes things physical,” Shuman said, pointing out the kneepads he’s wearing for all the comedy business.
The actors finished their scene and gathered in the lobby for a chat.
“We’ve done some winter shows at our small space at Fall Creek Studio,” said Dietrich, “which has been fun, and it’s appropriate for some shows, but not The Tempest. It’s bigger, and needs more room because of the magic, the shipwreck, and all of that. A lot of big things happen in The Tempest.”
I asked Sherman if he’d had ambitions to be on the stage during his day-job years. “Yes, and I realized them,” he said, “but not here. I was [acting] in Syracuse Shakespeare productions for two or three seasons, but this is my first production in Ithaca. And actually, when [ISC] was doing Merchant of Venice last year, I was doing it in Syracuse. This company has a great reputation and superb quality of company and production, and it’s an honor to be here, frankly. And it’s a much shorter drive.”
The group commiserated about the usual illnesses that can plague a tight-knit band of performers, and then I headed back into the theater to track down Michael Donato for a chat. Donato is one of my favorite people to talk to. He has a twinkle in his eye. You can tell that he loves his work, and I’m sometimes bowled over by the range and depth of our conversations.
I saw him here and there when we were rehearsing our shows at the Plantations this past summer, but I haven’t really spent time with him since we acted together in The Merchant of Venice last winter. As we settled into the Hangar’s green room couches, I said, “From Shylock to Prospero—not a bad run.”
“People always think of him as the stately wizard with the flowing white beard, and he serenely moves people around like chess pieces, but that’s not what works for me when I look at the play itself,” said Donato. “He’s actually a person who’s quite complex and tortured, and he’s motivated by love for his daughter, but also a sense of indignation and anger about what was done to him back in Milan, and he’s smarting from what’s been taken from him.”
The Tempest may have been the last play that Shakespeare wrote by himself before retiring from the theatre. There is a popular theory that Prospero’s concluding speech is to be interpreted as Shakespeare’s final, personal farewell to his art. As Donato said, “He puts all his houses in order, and then he’s left to this rather unhappy fate.
“This is a guy,” said Donato, “who used to be very entrenched and enmeshed in Milanese society, but he’s gone off in some direction that he needs to pull himself back from in order to become socialized again at the end of the play.”
It always struck me as doubly tragic that in the context of the play, Prospero is able to do so much for others, and yet his magical powers don’t allow him to conjure up some state of grace in which to spend the rest of his days.
“That’s a terrific insight,” Donato agreed. “Because the things he can do to other people—Ariel, Caliban—he can’t seem to do for himself. A trivial example, but one that can resonate: the Neapolitans are shipwrecked, and they wash ashore, but all their beautiful clothing has been maintained, but Prospero is dressed in castaway rags, and he has to find the finery that he had a dozen years ago. It never occurs to him to do what other people would do if they rubbed a genie’s lamp …
“‘Hey, Ariel, bring me some nicer clothes!’” continued Donato. “And he doesn’t do that. If Ariel can demolish an entire ship, he could probably make him a nicer hut if he’d asked.”
The Tempest will open on Valentine’s Day with a special romantic celebration featuring wine tastings by Americana Vineyards, sweet treats from Life’s So Sweet Chocolates, and more. There are six performances: Friday through Sunday, February 14-16 and 21-23, with all shows at 7:30 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets online, visit the Ithaca Shakespeare Company’s website at www.ithacashakespeare.org. Tickets can also be purchased by phone by calling the Hangar Theatre at 607-273-8588, or at the door before performances. •