Let’s face it. Pretty much everyone has been assigned to read Shakespeare’s The Tempest at some point in his or her educational career. If not, I don’t know how you got out of that one, as I personally have had to read and overanalyze the play twice. However, if you really have not had the pleasure of reading Shakespeare’s last and shortest drama, here it is in a nutshell: Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, has been deposed by his brother, Antonio, and marooned on a remote island with his daughter Miranda.
Twelve years pass, during which Prospero uses his keen knowledge of magic to liberate the island from the rule of the witch Sycorax and make a servant of her half-beast son, Caliban, along with enslaving the spirit Ariel to help him carry out his mischief. Prospero orders Ariel to shipwreck a vessel carrying, among others, the King of Naples, Antonio, his accomplice Alonso, and Alonso’s son Ferdinand, on the island. Confusion and hilarity ensues, and then before you know it, the curtain falls.
The Tempest has had a fascinating afterlife. From the 1660s to the present day it has been adapted, parodied and contested, along with serving as square one for new work. In The Shakespeare Theatre’s adaptation, the island that Prospero comes to inhabit is designed as a fusion of African and Arabic influence, meant to explore the significant impact that the Western world has on Africa and the Middle East, while underscoring personal and political tensions that exist between both cultures. Thus, the magic and music written into the play complete the theatrically complex spectacle of the play’s “masque elements.” Yet the play is also so clearly fictional in all its aspects, that it would be a mistake to see The Tempest as a straightforward allegory of imperialism. Shakespeare’s work is much more – music and sound, manifestations and guilt all play integral roles in his overall product and message. The Tempest manages to seamlessly intertwine just the right amount of enchantment and spectacle to draw in a modern audience years after the first curtain call.
The Tempest will run until May 22 at the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Go to www.shakespearetheatre.org for tickets. Tickets are $10 for students.