What do I mean? If the troupe was a singer, a certain Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley tune for “The Roar of the Greasepaint–The Smell of the Crowd” (the song famously covered by the fabulous Nina Simone) would provide Nashville Shakes with its lyrics: “It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life for me/And I’m feeling good!”
William Shakespeare’s great dramatic poem, which was likely first performed around 1611, has magic as well as human frailty and nobility coursing through its theatrical veins. It has the virtue of being as complex and messy as life while simultaneously offering a beautifully focused artistic benediction. A quick search of library collections and the Internet provides a host of literature analyzing and debating the inspirations for and interpretations of “The Tempest”; but scholarly works, and critic’s reviews, will never thoroughly relate or match the experience of either performing or watching it.
For first-time readers/viewers, here’s a setup: Prospero (Mark Cabus) was once the Duke of Milan. He was however too bookish for the good of himself and his subjects, and his brother Antonio (Angela Madaline-Johnson) used that preoccupation to steal the dukedom from him with the help of King Alonso of Naples (Alan Lee) and his brother, Sebastian (Brad Oxnam).
The deposed duke was set adrift in an unsafe boat with his then-baby daughter Miranda (Delaney Keith). They providentially landed on an island once ruled by a witch named Sycorax; as the play opens it’s 12 years later and Prospero’s books have guided him to dark arts mastery of the island. Sycorax’s son Caliban (Kit Bulla) and the spirit Ariel (Caroline Alise Conner, Ella Rieniets, Isabel Webb and Lane Williamson) reside there as well. Now the “strange accident” of a tempest has brought Prospero’s enemies and others to the island, and it’s time for a reckoning…and some romance…
The play’s protagonist may know magic, but he’s as realistically complex as any character in Shakespeare’s canon; it takes an actor of great skill and experiences onstage and off to bring us the flesh-and-blood Prospero that’s in the text. Enter Cabus, pursued not by a bear but by a dream – to give us his character’s love for his daughter, pain from his brother’s betrayal, progress toward the self-healing balm of forgiveness, and vulnerability in acknowledging the mortality that will soon ring down the curtain on his life.
Cabus casts a spell with his mastery of the actor’s art. He’s been a student, teacher, director and performer of Shakespeare for more than 40 years; the Bard and he have long resided together well (such as when he played Trinculo in a 2011 Georgia Shakespeare presentation of the play). As a masterful performer he never forgets that truth makes the best illusions: Shakespeare’s words are his character’s spontaneous speech, and the actions, reactions and emotions engendered by those words flow genuinely from him to an appreciative audience.
I’ve seen several excellent portrayals of Prospero in person, on streaming video or by other means; one instance occurred when I watched the enthralling Brian Webb Russell play the man “more sinned against than sinning” (to borrow from “King Lear“) the last time Nashville Shakes did the show in a 2010 Winter Shakespeare production at Belmont University’s Troutt Theater. Other recent favorites in the role were greats like Christopher Plummer and Simon Russell Beale. But the emotional vulnerability that flows through Cabus’ delivery of the oft-quoted Act IV “Our revels now are ended” speech made it brand new words to me on opening night, and as tears welled in my eyes and a lump developed in my throat, I once again thanked my lucky stars for the gifts he’s shared with fortunate audience members like me for many years.
(It’s appropriate to disclose that Cabus and I have been friends, and sometimes professional collaborators, for 30 years. I have a bias for his work, and him, just as I have a need for oxygen to breathe. But the evidence of eyes, ears, hearts and minds is not mine alone; I’m confident that many who will watch his performance in this production will assess it similarly.)
Cabus is part of a very good cast picked by Denice Hicks, the show’s veteran director (assisted by Justin Hand) and the company’s executive artistic director. She’s played Ariel more than once in other productions, and the wonderful decision to have Conner, Rieniets, Webb and Williamson combine as an harmonious bundle of Ariel aspects is engagingly rewarded thanks to the foursome’s full commitment to that choice.
Keith, Bulla, and Joe Leitess, who plays Ferdinand, Alonso’s son and heir, all bring proper energy, focus and textual understanding to their roles, which helps to conjure great believe-ability in the fantastical “Tempest” realm. Lee (welcome back, sir!) and Oxnam, favorites of mine for many a moon, are superb as usual.
Others in the cast are no less complete with their characterizations, including but not limited to Jocelyn Kasper’s wise and compassionate Gonzalo as well as Joy Greenawalt-Lay (Trinculo) and Jaye Phelps (Stephano) who play their foolish drunken knaves to the entertaining hilt. And I want to pay a special tribute to Madaline-Johnson without giving away specifics from the ending for those unfamiliar with it; her character’s reactions to the words and actions of Cabus’ character are brilliant and gripping choices.
Like the four actors that bring Ariel to life, the spirits that inhabit the island (and work their way so wonderfully through the audience throughout the piece) are played by the talented members of the NSF Apprentice Company: Andrew Johnson, Lydia Klaus, Sawyer Latham, Grey Eli Marron, Jamal Moore, Abigail Nichol, Lucca Herrera Silva, Storm Sloan, Reese Twilla and Abby Wyatt.
(The apprentice company has its own “Summer Shakespeare” show this year as well – click here for info on their Friday presentations of Shakespeare’s “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” directed by Laramie Hearn where you’ll also find info for “The Tempest” (there are even some double feature days noted on the company’s September calendar in addition to the shows’ dates this month and then).
The late British actor/producer Sir John Clements (the man who followed Lord Laurence Olivier as the Chichester Festival Theatre’s second director) wrote in a 1971 introductory essay that “The Tempest stands alone in [Shakespeare’s] opus as a play which is from the first moment to the last suffused with the feeling of music.” Suffusing this production with appropriately sprightly and ethereal compositions is Rolin Mains, who also serves as the show’s musical director. Playing alongside the masterful Mains as a rich complement to the action are equally expert musicians Luke Easterling and Jack Kingsley.
The better-than-ever balanced blending of music and voices is a tribute to the sound work done by engineer Cameron Cleland, assistant Ryan Gabriel and operator Sam Bartholomew. Light designer Janet Berka has quite a penchant for the challenging task of illuminating scenes amid the ever-changing background of an outdoor production; Fish Powell has engineered the lights, and he’s also part of a able run crew that includes Zeke Whiteside. Rounding out the superb tech team are set technical director Chelsea Flowers and site technical director/master electrician D.J. Ranta.
Andy Bleiler’s striking set is a yellow network of platforms and thrusts which he’s incorporated into OneC1ty’s 20-foot-tall, 42-foot-wide, curved 3-D printed pavilion installation. It looks good and the action plays well on, around and under it. The show’s carpenters are Jacob Friend, Cooper Humphreys, Drew Flickinger, Hatty King and Brooklyn Thompson.
Lynda Cameron-Bayer has long been a beloved figure in Nashville theater, and as she bids farewell to the Music City and moves to California she’s put plenty of colorful touches in the show’s costumes. The wardrobe supervisor is Denese Evans-Kelley and she’s also one of the stitchers along with Erin Thomas and Julia Weaver.
Among the other creatives that deserve a note of thanks for their singular contributions are dance choreographer Tosha Marie, fight director David Wilkerson, text coach Santiago Sosa (also the apprentice company’s director) and dramaturg Katie Stueckle. Their work does more to enhance the show than many may realize while they’re watching it.
Last but most certainly not least, there are the folks that make sure the theatrical trains onstage and off not only run on time but as efficiently as possible: the great stage manager Cecilia Lighthall (assisted by Kilby Yarbrough), house manager Eric Ventress (assisted by Sarah Bolek), pre-show coordinator Tessa Bryant and volunteer coordinator Anita Reed.
Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s sparkling new summer setting – where pedestrians peer down in wonder from the adjoining Francis S. Guess Connector Bridge and CSX trains run easily behind the space (and a wall) as if on cue – and its enchanting “Tempest” show the organization wants to take its art to a higher level more than 30 years after its founding. It’s been a rich blessing to Nashville beyond its significant cultural contributions to the Music City. Those of us that love Nashville theater should do all we can to help them build more “stuff as dreams are made on.”
“The Tempest” continues through Sept. 22 in The Yard at OneC1ty before moving to Franklin’s Academy Park Performing Arts Center Sept. 26-29. “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” runs through Sept. 20 at OneC1ty. The festival’s ticket page is here. For driving directions, specific dates, times, parking and other info on these “Summer Shakespeare” shows click here to visit the Nashville Shakes website. Click here for information on NSF volunteering and internship opportunities; to donate to Nashville Shakes please click here.