Stage Director: Opera-Theatre-Musicals
Chicago Tribune June 28, 2001
By H. Lee Murphy
Back in the summer of 1995, when the Borealis Theatre Co. in Aurora was staging its fifth annual Fox Valley Shakespeare Festival, the group hoped to present the classic pairing of “Hamlet” with the Paul Rudnick comedy “I Hate Hamlet.” But another group was staging the Rudnick show in Chicago that season and the rights weren’t available. “Hamlet” went on without its alter ego.
Now, six years later, the festival is finally getting around to “I Hate Hamlet.” This time it’s paired with Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,”
which opens on July 13 and runs until Aug. 5. Jeffrey Baumgartner, Borealis’s producing artistic director, typically directs at least one play each summer at the festival that he conceived and has managed from the start, but this year he’s stepped back into acting roles in each production instead. Catherine Palfenier, the associate artistic director of Borealis, is directing “I Hate Hamlet” while a guest director, Chuck Hudson from Seattle, is staging “The Tempest.”
Hudson knows “The Tempest” well. He directed the play with his own company, the Immediate Theatre in Seattle, in 1999 and then reprised it last year with Immediate. Hudson is a diverse talent. He graduated from Marcel Marceau’s International School of MimeDrama in Paris — one of only three American-born graduates — and later toured with Marceau through the U.S. He has worked with numerous opera companies, including the Minnesota Opera, where he directed Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” in March in Minneapolis.
Expect a “Tempest” with vigorous movement — Hudson was a competitive gymnast as a teen. One of the challenges for any production is the opening-scene shipwreck in a loud, clamorous storm at sea. Most companies launch into a fireball of special effects to fulfill Shakespeare’s vision, but Hudson plans a very different approach. “The movement of our actors on stage will create the storm,” he promises. “Their sounds will be the only sounds of the storm that we hear. It will be very stylized.”
July 17, 2001
Chicago Sun Times
For me, the acid test with any production of Shakespeare comes down to one thing: Can I understand what they’re saying?
Fabulous costumes, dazzling lights and scenery and beautifully choreographed stage fights are nice, but if you can’t figure what the actors are talking about, why bother?
I’m pleased to report I rarely got lost during the Borealis Theatre Company’s new production of The Tempest, which is no mean feat when you consider that some of ensemble were wearing masks and speaking in brogue.
Of course, following dialogue that was penned nearly 400 years ago can be difficult even for a certified egghead. Shakespeare may be the greatest writer who ever lived but it was certainly much easier to appreciate that fact when the language did not sound quite so foreign to the ears.
But a good production of Shakespeare can often be more enlightening than a thousand footnotes, if the actors and director have taken the time to truly digest the meaning of each line and then communicate it clearly to the audience. For this alone, director Chuck Hudson and the Borealis ensemble deserve high marks.
The Tempest is in many ways one of Shakespeare’s simplest plays. But it is difficult to stage because it demands lots of spectacle — specifically, it has to seem magical. That is no easy trick for a theatre with a modest budget and an audience accustomed to seeing fantastic special effects in the movies.
Director Hudson wisely doesn’t attempt to compete with Steven Spielberg. Rather, he uses stage conventions and symbolism to convey the supernatural aspects of the story, as well as the storm at sea with which the play begins.
Prospero (Richard Westphal) was once the Duke of Milan, but many years earlier he was stripped of his title by his treacherous brother Antonio (Bradford Cummings) and Alonso (Chris Pomeroy), the King of Naples. He was set adrift in a small boat with his daughter Miranda (Kara Szostek), with the expectation that both would soon die.
But, using books supplied by Alonso’s counselor Gonzalo (Cara Regina Mantella), Prospero has become a great wizard on a small island in the Mediterranean Sea. With the help of the spirit Ariel (Catherine Palfenier), he conjures up a terrific storm which shipwrecks his old enemies. But reconciliation, not revenge, is Prospero’s goal, so they are not only spared drowning but come ashore without even getting wet.
Several subplots are soon introduced. Ferdinand (Peter Robel), the innocent son of Alonso, gets separated from the rest of the group and Miranda, who has never seen a man other than her father, quickly falls in love with him. Stephano (Cummings again), a drunken butler and Trinculo (Jason Babinsky, who also doubles as Alonso’s evil brother Sebastian), the King’s jester, meet up with Caliban (Jeffrey Baumgartner), a monster on the island who unwisely enlists these bungling boobs in a plot to kill Prospero.
But the outcome of these events is never really in doubt, given Prospero’s godlike power. And that is one of the challenges of staging this play, because an audience can soon weary of a story so lacking in suspense.
But like Waiting for Godot, the lack of real action in The Tempest is deceptive. The focus is not really on events, but on the internal, even spiritual, nature of man. This is especially true of Prospero, who is a kind of alter ego to another great Shakespearean character, King Lear. Unlike Lear, Prospero shows us how to relinquish power gracefully. Westphal seems quite at ease in the role of Prospero and manages to seem both commanding and conciliatory. Also impressive are Cummings and Babinsky, who succeed in making their dual roles more than just a trick of technique, genuinely evoking distinctly different characters. (They were so good, in fact, that having Stephano and Trinculo wear masks seemed a bit superfluous.)
Other standouts in this strong cast were Baumgartner as Caliban, who performed with great vigor while clad in a modest loincloth and Palfenier, who played Ariel with great charm and mischievous energy.
Finally, the dancers who make up the band of spirits (Allison Auer, Pamela Huff, Samantha Shutte, Jennifer Stearns, Amy Thomas, Kathy Tjarks, Jennifer Wilson) were quite delightful, thanks to inventive staging by Hudson.