Shakespeare is timeless-clearly we know, which is why everyone continues to produce his shows. I love Shakespeare and am often re-reminded of his power of intention and use of language. So when I go to see it these days, I don’t need to ask myself if it’s a good play (yes some plays in the canon are more “problematic” than others), I choose to ask WHY? Why is this company choosing this play? What new insight and wisdom does it impart to me and my community now? Theatre Coup d'Etatis currently in the middle of their run of The Tempestat Spring House Ministry in Uptown, Minneapolis. Another opportunity to see the iconic “speak the speak,” I was interested in seeing their interpretation of this play and why they chose it. More specifically, the “why now?” 

A little history and general critique has suggested that The Tempestis often thought to be written in the genre of tragicomedythat started to gain popularity at the end of Shakespeare’s writing career. In the play we’ll not find those great humanistic problems and heroic struggle for better ideals, as in his earlier epics. Instead, the attention is focused on recovering humanity and its inherent nature towards forgiveness. Critics see The Tempestas explicitly concerned with its own nature as a play, frequently drawing links between Prospero's "art" and theatrical illusion. Early critics saw Prospero as a representation of Shakespeare, and his renunciation of magic as signaling a farewell to the stage; Prospero’s leaving the island is sometimes acknowledged as a symbol of Shakespeare’s leaving the passionate world of theatre.

So, it seems the theme is several-fold, embracing the magic and providence of nature, good overcoming evil, and “forgiveness” as the word of the day. THAT I can get behind and is also something we need a lot of in our world today. Throw magic and some playful spirits into the mix, and this is definitely a solid choice to produce during the Halloween AND...consequently, voting season.

Clearly spelled out on their website, “Theatre Coup d'Etat's mission is to provoke an emotional and analytical response in our audiences by showing the depth of the human condition through both classical and contemporary works.” In my experience as, layman audience member AND as repeat reviewer, they do not often disappoint. I appreciate their seasonal play selection, their use of movement, music and ensemble to tell grand stories. 

The show starts in a metaphorical tempest of sound, light and shrieking people; a beautiful representation of the storm that is the catalyst for the acts to follow. This was a wonderful and “magical” way to start the show in the already ethereal main room of the sight specific sanctuary. The central character of the play, PROSPERO, (the name speaks for itself since “Prospero” is Italian for “happy”, “blessed”, “calm”), is played by a stalwart Meri Golden. With the help of will and knowledge of white magic, aimed at extracting all the good and healing from nature, Prospero is able to put an end to the egoistic motivation in (her)self and other people, and finally direct the destinies of others around her to their own human good. This imagery is the stuff that dreams are made of...if only you could hear it! 

I’ve had this problem with performances in this space before. The acoustics are for microphones and speeches delivered from a pulpit, strands of the giant organ pipes, and choral music, anything else (especially at higher volumes) becomes mud. This is particularly difficult when attacking a heightened language piece. I know this show. I know the story and I understood what was going on, but I often couldn’t hear words and it made me wonder what those people unfamiliar with the text were experiencing. I applaud the idea of keeping the space sparse and free of set and clutter BUT, that might have been a way to dampen the reverberation.

Aside from some odd ambient buzzing, I think Sound Designer, Forest Godfrey, has done an admirable job in recreating the wilds of “nature” inside, unfortunately the sound doesn’t help clarify the echoing text, but tends to overwhelm it, due to the complicated acoustics of the space. The lighting design by Mark Kieffer, is impressive, considering the constraints of four light trees and a couple of floor spots. His use of rotating gobos and cool gels create an oceanic atmosphere and do well to light faces in the round.Credit, once again, must be given to Coup d’Etat’s movement guru and lead sprite, Kelly Nelson, as ARIEL PRIME. I loved the choice to make ARIEL several different iterations and Nelson, (with cohorts, Mairead Emma Koehler and Sophina Saggau), do their darndest to keep the magic alive. Their choreography, dissonant over chords and other physical representations of the island, breathe life into the piece. But, with the exception of some fun iridescence on PROSPERO’s cloak, and sheeny ARIEL satins, the costume design, by Chelsea Wren Hanvy, is largely beige, (literally and figuratively). I think there were some missed opportunities to play with color and texture when juxtaposing the whimsical nature of the island folk with the buttoned-up rigidity of those shipwrecked. There is metaphor to be visually articulated between the laws of nature and the laws of man and I wanted more, especially since there was no set to speak of.

The lovely and delicate relationship established between mother (Goldwin) and daughter (MIRANDA, played by the vulnerable, Stephanie Ruas), are upended by a cartoonish FERDINAND (Clay Man Soo Sletta) and the drug-store-monster CALIBAN (Craig James Hostetler) complete with peeling bald wig and witches’ fingernails. Although I appreciate the cutting of a longer script (it’s sad but true that not many people have the attention span of a Kenneth Branagh indulgence these days), the secondary plot of “the Royals” has been trimmed down to a couple of scenes and results in two dimensions, while the comic relief, (articulated by some forced buffoonery), relies too heavily on audience approval. Aside from a pee soaked doublet and a barf bag top hat, I was left with not much more than mild indifference. Director, James Napoleon Stone says, in his program notes “I never expected this story to be so damn funny. Serves me right, to have been digging for the darker, gritty elements of human nature for most of Coup d'Etat productions over the last seven years. This process, and the work of the artists, has reminded me that not only is it okay to forgive betrayal, but to continue loving with abandon, to be silly and enjoy it, and that life is too short to not laugh with your good friends until you throw up or pee yourself a few times.” and although I agree that there are some pretty funny sight gags involving bodily functions, I would have liked to have seen more attention to the other aforementioned details. 

All in all, the production is solid. Clearly there are some very talented trappings in the works here. Ultimately, I just felt disjointed and often uninspired. Every new scene seems to be part of a different play, or unrelated vignettes strung together. Again, I ask the question “why?” What was the overall thought and/or feeling I was meant to walk out that door with? Stone is a smart and talented artist, but I’m unclear of what his vision was here? It felt more like a variety show than a play with a solid core. The themes of “forgiveness,” “nature versus the imposed law of man” and even the joys of “laughing with good friends” were underdeveloped and in my opinion, lacked cohesiveness. However, as with most things, I encourage you to see it for yourself.  There are two more weekends to take a trek on this “island,” at The Springhouse Ministry through the middle of the month.