I found myself driving through the Boston snow storm on Saturday night dragging three teenagers to Shakespeare’s “the Tempest.” The kids had asked me to check to see if it was cancelled—which it was not. I reviewed the plot with them in the hopes of increased comprehension—not much success there either. The theatre was in the bottom of a church—which they acknowledged with some eye-rolling in the back of the car. I anticipated their disengagement and waited for the play to start.
Amidst the snow and culture shock, the teenager tempest turned out to be a success. Aided by a wonderful cast of actors, some of whom taught at Emerson College for the arts, the teenagers remained engaged and laughed without reserve. And what about this production did they like? It was not the plot review. Their enjoyment was based on their understanding of the play as acted out. The plot was supported by a cast that made Shakespeare clear to all. These actors must have spent a lot of time talking through how they would show the meaning of Shakespeare and reveal that meaning to the audience so that we could enjoy this play. They showed us the meaning of these 400-year old words and that allowed us to enjoy the play.
The director had made some unexpected and surprisingly thoughtful choices in casting where two of the characters, normally played by males—Antonio and Prospero—were cast as women. I enjoyed this cross-casting as the words take on multiple meanings when spoken by different genders. The play had been trimmed of unwanted words as well. The set was well decorated and did not substantially change except for props that were introduced and removed.
But what emerged for these teenagers were important and engaging ideas: How does Prospero magically control the action of a ship-load of people? Who on the ship have done her (him) wrong by expelling her from her dukedom? And while weaving her magic through the use of a spirit that leads to several funny vaudeville moments for two servants and Caliban, it becomes clear that Prospero can execute justice or revenge at her will on her brother and his supporters. So why at the end of the play does she remove the magic, help the two star-crossed lovers unite, and repair the relationship between her and her brother who threw her out of her dukedom? I won’t give away the answers to these questions so that you can also engage and enjoy Shakespeare’s answers at your convenience. But you can see through my eyes how generation after generation have tripped over the thresh-hold of shakespearean culture only to find the house of William filled with interesting plays, ideas and engagement. Teenagers and Tempests are two cultures that co-inhabit the same island—complicated, filled with magical thinking and not always predictable.