The Tempest

Article excerpt

The Tempest

Presented by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company at the Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theater, Chicago, Illinois, March 26--May 31, 2009. Directed by Tina Landau. Sets by Takeshi Kata. Costumes by James Schuette. Lighting by Jane Cox. Sound Design by Josh Schmidt. With Alana Arenas (Miranda), K. Todd Freeman (Caliban), Frank Galati (Prospero), Stephen Louis Gnash (Ferdinand), Jon Michael Hill (Ariel), Tim Hopper (Trinculo), James Vincent Meredith (Antonio), Yasen Peyankov (Stephano), Lois Smith (Gonzalo), Craig Spidle (Alonso), Alan Wilder (Sebastian), and others.

Twelfth Night

Presented by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Courtyard Theater at Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois, March 29-June 7, 2009. Directed by Josie Rourke. Design by Lucy Osborne. Lighting by Robert Wierzel. Sound Design by James Savage. With Karen Aldridge (Olivia), Michelle Beck (Viola), Scott Jaeck (Sir Toby Belch), Ora Jones (Maria), Dan Kenney (Andrew Aguecheek), Ross Lehman (Feste), John Lister (Sea Captain/Priest), Mark Montgomery (Orsino), Edgar Miguel Sanchez (Valentine), Dan Sanders-Joyce (Fabian), Chris Sullivan (Antonio), Peterson Townsend (Sebastian), Larry Yando (Malvolio), and others.

In director Tina Landau's production of The Tempest, Landau toyed with the notion of"rough magic" by setting the Bard's last play within a stark, post-apocalyptic industrial landscape cluttered with steel bars, metal poles, and concrete floors. Prospero's island resembled an abandoned warehouse, or the inside of a city garage, with the main element being a catwalk slicing the stage diagonally, and a curtain on the back wall serving as a projection screen. In line with its minimalist set design, even Prospero's cherished books were confined to the far comer of the stage, constituting little more than a few stacks. Landau removed the island from the now-tired context of Jamestown-style colonial conquest, instead playing up its modernity, and positing its relevance to a supposedly "post-racial" world. In the production, questions of nationhood and territorial invasion benefited from the subtext of the contemporary cityscape, evoking issues of white flight, gentrification, and real-estate segregation. With the Steppenwolf theater being located near wealthy Lincoln Park--a primarily white neighborhood in Chicago, not too far from the still mostly black and impoverished South Side--Landau provocatively invited the audience to connect the play's Elizabethan imagining of a colonial encounter with the segregated racial politics that still pervade modern-day cities.

After complaints in recent years about its lack of diversity, and the fact that it has only a few African-Americans in its ensemble (a 2006 article in the magazine Time Out pointedly asked, "Why is Chicago theater so white?"), the nationally-recognized theater company, best known for launching the careers of the actors John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, and most recently for developing and premiering the 2008 Tony-Award winning play August: Osage County, impressively redressed the situation by adding several more African-American ensemble members in 2007. In total, four African-American actors starred in this production in prominent roles: Alana Arenas as Miranda, Jon Michael Hill as Ariel, K. Todd Freeman as Caliban, and James Vincent Meredith as Antonio. The production's non-traditional casting represented one of its greatest strengths, with Hill in particular lending a particularly winsome teenage-like stubbornness and toughness to Ariel. Hill's Ariel, with his exposed pectorals and gymnast-like muscularity, had such high-testosterone strength as to turn Prospero's reference to him as "nymph of the fairies" into a laugh line for the audience. While the moment may have struck some as prescribing a kind of heteronormative masculinity (Hill's hyper-masculine Ariel took offense at Prospero's description of him as a "nymph"), the exchange was indicative of the productions continued efforts to prescribe agency and power to its enslaved servant characters. …