SALT LAKE CITY — Grassroots Shakespeare Company has a very strong and vocal following. They proudly proclaim that they are an original practices company, meaning—just like in Shakespeare‘s time—that they have no director, no actor uses a full script, but only gets their cues and lines, and they have minimal rehearsal time. Costuming is done by the individual performers and they perform without special lighting or other effects. Audience participation is also a big part of their shows. Grassroots tries to approximate the experience of viewing the plays in Shakespeare’s own time. Their current offering is The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and one my personal favorites.
The Tempest is usually grouped with Shakespeare’s comedies, but isn’t a comedy in the usual Shakespearean type. It is called a romance by some, and that label seems to fit it better, but is still lacking as an accurate description. The Tempest includes a love story, but also retribution and reconciliation. Grassroots had decked their usual stage out for the holidays with garland and golden curtains. In the upper room of the Masonic Temple, it was a lovely setting. The performance was energetic and well-paced and was enjoyable throughout. And with some judicious cutting from the original script, the evening lasted around 90 minutes.
Daniel Fenton Anderson was well cast as Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan. He had a commanding presence and imbued Prospero with a caring and cunning that was a real joy to watch. Anderson’s interactions with Ariel (Tyson Kyle Cantrell) were especially engaging. Cantrell as Ariel was delightful to watch because he gave Ariel the right air of sprightliness and athleticism. I particularly enjoyed the scene where he confronts the royals for usurping Prospero. Andy Hansen and Phillip Varney were very enjoyable as the clowns Stephano and Trinculo, along with Steven Pond as Caliban. They brought a fine comic timing and broad slapstick to their comic scenes. I especially enjoyed the gesturing that Andy Hansen gave when we was envisioning becoming king of the island. These comic scenes were all enjoyable and probably the strongest part of the evening.
Some parts of the show, however, didn’t work for me as well as others. Costuming, as a whole, was very well done. I particularly liked the use of different masks to denote when Ariel was visible and invisible. But the beard used by Bianca Morrison Dillard as Gonzalo made it hard to understand what she was saying. Miranda is one of the stronger heroines in Shakespeare’s canon, but Alex Shaye Wintch portrayed her as an excessively comic character to a point that was distracting. Wintch seemed to be playing all her scenes for comic effect, mugging to the audience and even flirted with the audience in the final scene when she is supposed to be so deeply in love with Ferdinand. Her choices seemed to be so superficial throughout.
And that was what seemed to be my biggest complaint with the production. I like Shakespeare with a bit more than just surface. I like to see some of the depth of character and situation that have kept Shakespeare relevant and intriguing 400 years after his plays were written. Most of this production seemed to be skimming along the surface of Shakespeare. I don’t believe that every production must be a museum piece where philosophy and inner monolog must be explored. But I don’t believe that The Tempest is a slapstick comedy, and there seemed to be a bit too much of that present here. And maybe I’m too much of a stick in the mud, but I was sometimes annoyed at some of the audience participation. I know they encourage that, and in other productions of Grassroots shows it has not intruded on the production. The night I went the audience seemed to a lot of friends and family of the cast and that may have made the audience a bit more participatory than usual. I also realize that in Shakespeare’s day there likely weren’t a lot of the psychological layers that we have come to expect from Shakespeare, and that may be a discussion for a different day, but I want more substance, more meat on the bones of Shakespeare.
The Tempest is a story with depth, but Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s production was a little lacking in that depth. Having said all that, Grassroots does an amazing job of making Shakespeare accessible. My kids have seen several of their productions and loved each one. There were many young children in the audience this night and they all seemed to be fully engaged in the production. And while I did enjoy this production, it just didn’t quite hit it out of the park for me.