WRA to present an anti-colonial spin on The Tempest

WRA to present an anti-colonial spin on The Tempest

All are welcome to join us for this year's spring play, The Tempest, performed in the Knight Fine Arts Center theater.

Friday | April 26 at 8 p.m.

Saturday | April 27 at 8 p.m.

Sunday | April 28 at 2 p.m.

Tickets are available at the door.

Shakespeare is no stranger to the KFAC stage, but in this spring production of The Tempest, creativity, commentary and change are abundant in a provocative performance that is sure to succeed.

In English Department faculty member Conor O'Sullivan's first WRA-directed play, he and his cast take strides away from a more traditional approach to the show. From an abstract set design, to gender-swapping a few of the characters, to the deliberate deletion of particular scenes, O'Sullivan and the actors are retooling a nearly 400-year-old play and in doing so, underlining a post-colonial reading of the fantastical story.

The Tempest, one of Shakespeare's final comedies, weaves a story of magic, schemes, betrayal, forgiveness and love. The starring protagonist is Prospero (or rather, Prospera, played by junior Ananya Chetia), a powerful magician and Duke of Milan, whose title is usurped by Antonio (played by Olivia Robinson '20). Prospera and her daughter, Miranda, are exiled to a remote island, already occupied by island natives. In her fury, Prospera casts a spell to create a storm and subsequent shipwreck, bringing the passengers Antonio and the King Queen of Naples (Jill Reef '21) to the island and setting the scene for a murder plot or two, a romance and more.

O'Sullivan said he took note of his colleague Andrew Borneman's CL English Course, Postcolonial Literature and Film, which carefully examines the historic consequences of colonization and resulting oppression of the original inhabitants. Course texts include The Tempest, and this, along with O'Sullivan's own Shakespeare class, set the course for the theme of this spring's production.

This was not a planned approach; in fact, O'Sullivan admits that as he went into the rehearsal process, he kept an open mind about how the show would take shape, only knowing that he wanted and hoped to be bold.

"Though I do appreciate the more purist approach, I'm somebody who believes that if you're going to put on a 400-year-old play, you should try to have something new to say about it," he said. "The beauty of putting on a high school performance is that even just a slightly different interpretation is relatively new for the students. Postcolonialism, for example, is one of the main sort of strands of scholarship in this play and previous productions have really emphasized Prospero as a sort of colonial master, with the indigenous Ariel and Caliban as his subjects."

O'Sullivan saw this as an opportunity to engage students, and the overall audience members, in an important conversation, even as they are laughing at the some of the more lighthearted scenes, notably the dynamic duo of Spenser Valentine '19 and Noah Frato-Sweeney '20, playing Stephano and Trinculo, respectively.

"I hope that within the humor and the comedy of those scenes, people also will see some of those comments that Shakespeare has put in there," said O'Sullivan. "We're trying to bring questions to the forefront -- such as how to respond to the workings of power and how we find our place in systems that are based on power and oppression."

To shepherd the viewer to this perspective, O'Sullivan has shifted the ending of the play, taking focus away from Prospera and and bringing deliberate attention to the subjugated characters, many of whom may never speak any lines.

"What the audience sees is that this play isn't really about Prospera at all," described O'Sullivan. "It's about Caliban's story, Ariel's story, even the island spirits' stories. Because in the end, they're the ones who will be on stage in the final scene, rather than Prospera. And it turns into a story about how they come together to assert themselves, their agency and claim what is rightfully theirs."

In this way, some may see Prospera not as a heroine, but an oppressor. To capture this, Chetia drew inspiration from pop culture icons to put on a performance that casts Prospera in a rather dislikable light.

"I've watched Harry Potter and I am fully prepared to play an evil villain," she said, describing how she, in part, channeled Draco Malfoy. "I also watched episodes of "Keeping up with the Kardashians" and was incredibly inspired by Khloe Kardashian's sassy attitude towards her family. She isn't a villain, but her confident energy and her distinct tone of voice was helpful!"

Chetia also had a formidable challenge in playing this role, particularly in mastering a protagonist's full script.

"Definitely memorizing the lines has been the greatest challenge of all," she said. "I'm giving a shout out to the voice recording app -- it will save your life. Also, it is important to really understand each line so that we can portray the emotions for the audience to understand."

Certainly, performing and mastering Shakespeare's verse is no small feat, but O'Sullivan's cast is up to the challenge. The audience should have no trouble following along, and perhaps they may find themselves picking up on some of the more subdued but deliberate details embedded in the show.

The set design, for example. The scenery is presented as a mixture of the real and the artificial. So how does that look?

"What we wanted was to show the conflict between nature and manmade structures," said Technical Theater Director Brandon Davies. "[O'Sullivan] wanted to see that in a combination of angular and curves. So you have the rocky surface of the island, along with pieces of the ship that crashed there years and years ago. You can see pieces of the set that might have originally come from that ship -- but it's all designed to be functional."

The set looks -- as O'Sullivan describes -- stage-y, and it brings to mind these themes of the natural mixing with the manmade. And in its simplicity, it gives the actors room to roam and take the space they need. It also gives the audience a better view into the other stage effects Davies and his crew are bringing to the show.

"We're playing a lot with the characters controlling the environment around them," Davies described. "That will be reflected in the lights and then moments where maybe the characters lose control and things get a little haywire."

There will be a mixture of music and sound effects in the show -- from student-musicians accompanying scenes on violin to Sigur Ros and excerpts from the Master and Commander soundtrack.

"Overall, it's definitely more modern than not," said Davies. "Sort of a show out of time."

Fine & Performing Arts Department faculty member Donalee Ong has been a great help and friend to O'Sullivan, assisting with several aspects of the show, including choreography and costume design. True to her careful attention to detail, you may notice nice touches -- such as Caliban's cloak, fashioned out of the same material as the sail on the broken ship's mast.

"It's really been wonderful having her by my side," said O'Sullivan. "Knowing that there's somebody with all that experience and all that expertise, her advice and ideas -- it's been incredibly valuable to me."

Taking on a new and atypical role is Isabelle Murray '19 as the Student Assistant Director.

"She's been such a huge help," said O'Sullivan. "She took my Shakespeare class in the fall, and the final project was to design a production of The Tempest. She did such a great job with it, and she's been offering input and helping coordinate rehearsals. I can bounce ideas off of her, and I've gotten to see how she's really grown into this role."

Murray, who most recently performed in the winter play, Our Town, opted not to audition and instead volunteered for this role.

"We recently did a run through the show and I took notes the whole time," said Murray. "I'll talk to cast members and make sure they're in the right place and offer some of my own suggestions. I was nervous at first, but the cast has been really great -- respecting and listening to my ideas."

The show takes to stage next week, and the director, cast and crew have a busy tech week ahead of them. But spirits are high and O'Sullivan is incredibly proud of what they have accomplished thus far.

"This show really feels like a collaborative effort," said O'Sullivan. "They've all worked incredibly hard, and it shows."

Best of luck to the cast and crew of The Tempest! See the full cast list.