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Musical Errs

Pantomime, Interpretive Dance, and Shakespeare Just Don’t Mix

MIS-SPELLED: (from left) Stephanie McLaughlin and Linda Kent conspire.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 2/16/2005

For their latest production, the Spotlighters tackle William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Well, parts of it anyway. This rather abridged version throws over the Bard in favor of pantomimes and dance sequences, doing to The Tempest what so many have done to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—turning a beautiful piece of literature into an oversimplified, cringe-worthy musical. That’s not to say that the Spotlighters’ production is without its charms, but if I never again have to see an interpretive dance done by a girl dressed as the personification of Fire that’d be just fine with me.

The play begins with a woman in fishnet and face paint giving a pseudo-Shakespearean speech about where the exits are and turning off your cell phones. Then a girl in a white fluffy dress, looking very much like she’s headed to her first Holy Communion, comes onstage, sprinkles the first row with glitter, and starts to sing a sort of ’80s ballad. Four other sprites follow. According to my program, they are supposed to represent the elements. The girl in the red cigarette girl outfit is Fire; the one dressed as the Chicken Lady is Air. The girl in the Muppet-esque blue streamer headdress is Water, and the girl in green, wrapped in a net like she’d been dredged, is Earth. They dance around as Prospero comes out and pantomimes a spell. Then the sailors enter and the storm is expressed by these oddly dressed women dancing around the sailors while Water slightly dampens them with a plant spritzer and Fire flicks her Bic at them. Certainly irritating but hardly worth abandoning ship over. When this ended, I realized that they made it through The Tempest’s first scene without uttering a syllable from the play. That’s when I started to worry.

What followed was two and a half hours of scenes from The Tempest alternated with dance sequences, at one point performed with gymnastic streamers. The production does all right when it sticks to the source material and gets the basic story across. Prospero, the Duke of Milan (played by Linda Kent, making the duke a duchess), has been usurped by her brother Antonio, who sent her and her daughter Miranda off in a less-than-seaworthy boat. By providence, Prospero and Miranda end up on an island where Prospero hones her skills as a wizard and uses a spirit named Ariel to work her magic. When Antonio and Alonso, the King of Naples, sail by the island many years later, Prospero calls up the titular tempest, shipwrecking them so she can seek her revenge. Miranda and the king’s son Ferdinand end up falling in love, Antonio and the king, who helped in the plot to get rid of Prospero, learn a valuable lesson, and Prospero decides to give up magic, take back her dukedom, and otherwise let bygones be bygones.

Making the island a land of powerful women adds an interesting dimension to the play, contrasted with the corrupt kingdom of men back at the court. Carly Flint is sweet as Miranda. And Antonio (Thomas Brown) and his friend Sebastian (Steve Beall) have a pleasantly natural repartee. Their sardonic lines are all the better against the cheesiness director Timothy Fowler has infused into the play, not just by adding dancing and singing intervals courtesy of the sprites but also by making Miranda and Ferdinand (Greg Cooke) do a dance of love that includes turning in circles holding hands. Zuanna Sherman does well as Stephano, the king’s drunken butler, but the real standout is Stephanie Mclaughlin’s plucky Ariel, a performance so centered and likable that she comes through the silliness unscathed.

So why hate on the dancing? Timoth Copney’s choreography doesn’t work in the Spotlighters’ small theater-in-the round setting. It seems awkward and forced, but mostly it just feels insulting. If you think your audience is incapable of sitting through The Tempest, don’t perform it. If I wanted to read the Cliff Notes version, I’d go buy it. At least that way I’d get the gist of the play, minus the dancing Chicken Lady.

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