"The Tempest" Whips Up a Storm at the Ag

A bold new staging explores a classic work of theater

When Shakespeare wrote that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” he wrote not only of Prospero but also about theater itself. “The Tempest” plays with the idea of a dream world in which one character, much like an artist, can shape the entire world through his talent. In the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club's production of “The Tempest,” directed by Joshua R. McTaggart '13, a Crimson arts editor, and staged at the Agassiz Theatre from December 8 to December 11, took to this interpretation to heart. The result was a production that recast the artist as a magician, and explored a world where an obsessed director has the power to control the actions of everyone around him.

“The Tempest” follows Prospero (Peter K. Bestoso '14), a sorcerer and the usurped Duke of Milan, as he orchestrates the perfect revenge on the men who ousted him from his throne. He and his daughter Miranda (Anna A. Hagen '15) have been living on a deserted island for 12 years when Prospero’s brother Antonio (Felix L.J. Cook '13) and the King of Naples, Alonso (Matthew J. Bialo ’15), sail by the island. Prospero creates a tempest to strand them on the island, and as the play unfolds Prospero commands the behavior of the characters in much the same way that a director controls the action on stage.

The audience never saw the island in McTaggart’s vision. Instead, set designer Madelynne A. Hays '13 explored McTaggart’s theme of magic in art through the set. As opposed to an outdoor vista, the stage is a hauntingly accurate artist’s studio, complete with hundreds of books, paint sets, and other various curiosities. Through a simple yet effective use of lighting this same set also became the cave of Caliban (Darcy C. Donelan '14), Prospero’s slave, half man and half beast. At that moment, the stage became completely dark, and Bestoso and Hagen used flashlights to explore the dark, cavernous space as if spelunking. Even when the lights were up the stage was not exactly what it seemed. Large bookcases were used to create a leveled space, and the actors could climb on top of them to look down on the action below.

The acting was superb all around; the actors were able to remain true to their characters while still fitting their roles into this production's overarching theme. Bestoso turned Prospero into an obsessed, almost tyrannical father figure. The look on his face as he watched over his daughter’s betrothal can only be described as chilling. Teis D. Jorgensen '14 and Ruth Angus, a visiting student at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, were appropriately ridiculous as Trinculo and Stephano, a jester and a drunken butler who try to incite Caliban to rebel against his master. Donelan made the audience pity the plight of the disfigured Caliban while also reviling him for his venom and stupidity. Julian C. Lucas '15 was convincingly level-headed as Gonzalo, and Hagen and Bryan D. Kauder '14 were adorable as innocent lovers Miranda and Ferdinand. Some of the best performances came from Anthony J. Sterle '12 and Cook as Sebastian and Antonio. The two “evil” characters are rarely on stage, but Sterle’s confused conscience was the perfect foil for Antonio, who was transformed into a ruthless and sarcastic figure by Cook.

Mariel N. Pettee '14 stole the show as Ariel, a fairy who serves Prospero, with a performance full of levity and spirit. In addition to humanizing the character of Ariel, she spent much of the play dancing and playing the flute. Most impressive was her characterization of Ariel not only as Prospero’s slave, but also as his lover. In many of their interactions, Bestoso physically loomed over Pettee; this posture communicated both a physical attraction and a sense of dominance. Although McTaggart’s reading of Ariel and Prospero’s relationship was unconventional, it added a welcome modernity to their relationship.

Although McTaggart's cast produced an excellent show, his often heavy-handed attempts to convey his message about the magic of art sometimes disrupted its flow. At various points in the play, actors would dance on stage with masks and paintings in their hands to loud film soundtracks. Although the idea seemed to reinforce the concept of art as magic, these moments just distracted the audience from Shakespeare's plot and the actors' nuanced characterization. “The Tempest” was an incredibly funny and insightful version of one of Shakespeare’s more enigmatic plays, weakened only by a message.

—Staff writer Sara Kantor can be reached at skantor@college.harvard.edu.

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