The Montford Park Players have kicked off their 34th season with William Shakespeare’s final play — one which, to many aficionados, is his finest romance.
The Tempest combines the best of the Bard’s tragic and comic offerings in a strange tale involving spells, witchcraft, invisible characters and exotic sound effects. The first of this season’s three productions runs through July 9, to be followed by Hamlet and Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer.
Shakespeare is generally credited with at least 37 plays, perhaps as many as 40, and the Montford Park Players, North Carolina’s oldest Shakespeare troupe, has performed two thirds of them since 1973, when they staged the first of six renditions of As You Like It (reprised in 1974, 1982, 1983, 1997 and 1998). The Tempest and Hamlet were last presented here two decades ago, back-to-back in the 1984-85 and 1985-86 seasons, respectively. Goldsmith’s play is something of a departure for the troupe, which has only offered three non-Shakespeare plays during its summer seasons, the last being Euripides’ The Trojan Women, in 1992.
Managing Director John Russell explains: “In accordance with our strategic plan, we decided to add a third, non-Shakespeare production to our summer schedule, to expand our programming and take advantage of the fall ‘shoulder season’ of tourism, as well as providing additional opportunities for local actors and our audience to enjoy works by other classical playwrights.”
The Tempest relates the story of Prospero, exiled Duke of Milan turned magician, who creates the titular storm in order to shipwreck former enemies, secure his daughter Miranda a husband and finagle a triumphant return to Milan. With the aid of an invisible fairy named Ariel, and Caliban, a grotesque son-of-a-witch, Prospero manages to accomplish all of his goals, though not without occasional calamitous confrontations and twists of plot.
At a deeper level, Shakespeare used this fairy tale to pose questions about reality and what it means to be human. The play is self-consciously a play, an unreal world limned by sets and costumes, and yet the core issues reach well beyond the stage. For Ariel and Caliban, both indentured to Prospero, questions of freedom and slavery, debt and recompense, are all too real. To Miranda, raised in isolation, first love and filial loyalty loom large. Prospero seeks atonement and justice while others question choice and fate and the jester, Trinculo, contemplates the veritas in vino.
Speaking of refreshments, Shakespeare in the park is sometimes equally about picnicking and ambiance as the play itself — and children are apt to find as much delight in fireflies as in pageantry. Attendees are encouraged to bring lawn chairs, blankets, food and drink.
But MPP is ever less casual about selecting its acting talent — the company’s current Prospero is Stephanie Hickling, long a presence on the local theater scene (her most recent role was in Scapegoat Theatre Collective’s much-praised political drama The Exonerated).
Tempest director Jason Williams hypes the local production’s “wonderful set” and “beautiful costumes.”
However, he adds, “by far I think the major strength of our production is our cast. Nearly everyone in the cast has worked with Montford for several seasons, and are accustomed to the particulars of outdoor performance.”
By which he’s not referring to mosquitoes and basket suppers — Williams is talking “projection … movement … presence.”
Montford Park Players present Shakespeare’s The Tempest at 7:30 p.m. at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through July 9. Free. Hamlet, King of Denmark runs July 21-Aug. 13. She Stoops to Conquer runs Sept. 8-17. See montfordparkplayers.org for more information.