It begins with a crash.
Lightning cuts through the fog as a captain struggles to hold the wheel of the ship. The passengers run about, grabbing onto any solid object to keep them upright. Suddenly, a spirit dressed in blue wisps past each of them, the air knocking them over and capsizing their boat.
UNCG’s School of Theatre opened a two-weekend run of the Tempest on Jan. 14. The story follows a shipwreck onto an island full of spirits, run by a sorcerer, as the magic of the island brings everyone closer.
The company kept the story’s stormy entrance, but pulled Shakespeare’s play into a more modern setting, dropping it firmly in 1957. Twisting the bard’s work a bit further, the company opened many of the male roles to women, making for a mother-daughter tale with Prospera at the center.
The show serves as MFA student Ashley Sarver’s thesis production. Acting behind the scenes as both director and composer, Sarver made a few alterations with her crew. In 1957, the aftermath of WWII and the approaching Cold War informed the island. Magician’s robes become a silky shawl and a wide-brimmed hat, while the spirits that haunt the island become beatniks in circle, wearing sunglasses and turtlenecks. After changing the main character from Prospero to Prospera, the rest of the cast became a sort of gender-bending free-for-all, opening up a male-dominated play to many of the female actors of the school.
“It was more actor-informed casting,” Sarver said. “It was about who could tell the story the best.”
The changes helped actors Carla Dale Fuller and Maddie Conti learn the story. In their first Shakespeare experience, the two took the roles of Prospera and Ariel respectively.
Fuller and Conti found that honing in on the meanings behind the Bard’s Elizabethan dialect helped to guide their performance.
“It was vital that we knew what every single person was saying or going through,” Conti said.
The original play, filled with iambic pentameter and intermittent songs for Ariel’s magic, carries even more rhythm and musicality than some of the Bard’s other work. UNCG’s School of Theatre challenges the limits, taking the era of jazz and the beginnings of rock as influences.
“I think a really big part of it was that the music really fit the story,” Fuller said.
The spirits, clad in unmatching patterns, wide-legged pants and black clothing, roam about. They tap on bongos, or play a few notes on a saxophone as the shipwrecked characters explore the island. A snap or two interrupts conversations, and Conti improvs scat singing as Ariel lulls the shipwreck’s survivors to sleep, or lures Ferdinand further into the forest.
On one side of the stage, a pile of platforms reach up. The shape becomes an island’s side for the ship to crash into, or a cliff for the characters to climb. In one scene, it acts as a scattering of rocks and shipwreck on the shore. In another, it acts as a hill for the characters to hide upon. Sound Designer Andrew Crews explained that as characters walk by, certain open/close switches helped the formation act just like a pair of drums or tambourine.
“We were then able to play the island,” Crews said.
When formal music isn’t playing, sound effects in the form of distorted, pulsating noises emit from the stage. Rather than coming from an instrument, however, the music is sneakily hidden inside the largest rock on the stage.
Behind the music and the sound effects, a singular, irregular tone pulsates. Crews explained the idea came from a musicalization of gamma ray radiation done by NASA. It sets everything off, from thundering during the storm, to symbolizing the end of Prospera’s magical obsession, all in the background of humanity discovering what power radiation could hold.
“Our set,” Sarver said, “became a live instrument.”