SALT LAKE CITY — As produced by The University of Utah, The Tempest is Shakespeare for the 21st century. The set (designed by Kyle Becker) is massive, comprised of these giant structures to resemble rocks or mountains, and there are two carved out with tunnels that actors appear (and disappear) into. The majesty of the set is enhanced by the sound (designed by Jennifer Jackson) and lighting (designed by Nikayla Nielson), which is used liberally throughout the play as lighting strikes, thunder, drums, loud exhalations, and singing. At various moments throughout the performance, smoke blooms from the set enhancing the fantastical ambience.
The Tempest does not feel like a Shakespeare play. Unlike my previous experience watching Macbeth, where the company attempted to recreate the same conditions as yesteryear, this production of The Tempest is absolutely interested in modern theatrical conventions. To a large extent, the technical components of the play almost outweigh the script itself; all the actors are beautiful (perhaps a byproduct of youth, as this is a college production) and the costumes (designed by Brenda Van Der Wiel) were period accurate and gorgeous. When the Queen and her entourage appear, the beauty of their garments were breathtaking. The Queen (played by Debora Ingabile) wore a shimmering white/silver gown, with her crown sitting atop a white snood. Gonzola (played by Emily Tatum) is dressed in a baby pink number with her small dagger in a dark pink sheath, while Antonio (played by Akina Yamazaki) and Sebastian (played by Hannah Ekstrom) are equally as impressive and impeccably well dressed.
Even the less regal characters look the part. The spirit Ariel (played by Laurel Morgan) wears that make-up shimmers with her glittery eye shadow, looking every bit as ethereal as her character is meant to be. And despite being Prospero’s daughter, Miranda (played by Natalie Ruthven) wears tattered and dirty clothes, while barefoot like the other inhabitants on the island (save her mother). TProspero (played by Kirsten Henriquez) carries a tall staff (created by propmaster Arika Schockmel) embedded with gems that glow in the dark and she casts spells. (When Ferdinand, played by Isacc Martinez-Trinidad, is collecting wood, one piece is also covered in these gems.) There is also an earlier scene where Prospero has increased the weight of Ferdinand’s sword, and he tries unsuccessfully to lift it from the ground, prompting laughter from the audience as he screws his face up in frustration.
Under the weight of all this technical prowess, Shakespeare’s script seems to get sucked away. His words only really stand out in the comedic moments — of which there are many — between the characters. Such as the somewhat drawn out scenes between Stephano (played by Cade Freiermuth), Trinculo (played by Caro Ciet) and Caliban (played by True Leavitt) where they mock each other, drink themselves silly, and wander around the island. The best moment featuring the trio is when Ariel appears and possesses Trinculo, calling Stephano a liar, which raises his ire causing them to fight. In this scene, Trinculo’s back is turned toward the audience as Ariel commands control over their body. This happens several times in succession as Ariel causes strife in the small group.
Another notable feature of The Tempest is director Melinda Pfundstein‘s choice to use color-blind casting, with many prominent roles played by non-white people. Shakespeare’s plays are a great for this artistic choice because the stories are often so character-driven that the race of most characters is not relevant. And considering the overwhelming whiteness of the plays on the Utah stage, it is refreshing to see a plethora of faces that are not normally seen. At the University of Utah, The Tempest really shows a “brave new world with such people in it.” Unfortunately, I was a bit frustrated that, despite casting a Black woman to play the Queen, she does not really have any lines until the end of the play and spends the bulk of her stage time looking otherwise shocked or bewildered. Nearly every other character in the play has more lines, purpose and presence compared to this character.
The only real drawback to Tempest are the gender swapped characters; women play various male roles, but their pronouns are changed while their names stayed the same. In Prospero’s monologue to her daughter, she mentions her sister – who turns out to be Antonio. All these characters were originally meant to be men, and so why not keep the pronouns the same? This would have been more consistent, and made it easier to stay in the story.
Overall, The Tempest is a great foray into Shakespeare for people non-fans. The comedic parts of this work are played up, thanks to Melinda Pfundstein’s strong directorial choices, while the bulk of the play is carried by the technical elements. Ariel’s singing is pleasurable to listen to, and every actor in this show makes a striking contribution to this classic show. With The Tempest, the University of Utah has a production that makes a classic script into a modern gem.