Review: Play On’s ‘The Tempest’ Aims to Please in Modern English

By Paige Allen
July 1, 2019

Out of Shakespeare’s known plays, The Tempest is ranked among my favorites. I am only half joking when I say that I had a religious experience reading it for the first time, a spiritual awakening which led me to initiate myself into the cult of the English Department at Princeton University. Yet, over the course of Play On Shakespeare’s reading of The Tempest at Classic Stage Company, I realized that I, “super fan” that I am, had forgotten or, more accurately, disregarded a basic aspect of the play: its humor. Play On Shakespeare reminded me that, in addition to dealing with complex questions of freedom, government, power, and forgiveness, The Tempest is a comedy—or, at least, a genuinely funny play.

The Play On Festival, hosted by Classic Stage Company, is a presentation of work commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of the Play on! Shakespeare translation project. OSF tasked 36 playwrights (over half of whom are women and over half of whom are playwrights of color) to translate the plays of William Shakespeare into modern English.

Shakespeare in modern English? The horror!

I’ve heard the arguments: Without Shakespeare’s words, they’re not Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare in modern English isn’t pretty enough or fancy enough or authentic enough.

What the playwrights behind these translations intend—and, in my view, accomplish—is to facilitate an “authentic” experience of seeing Shakespeare as the audiences in his day would have, when there were no boundaries between the text and the audience. 

I know, I’ve heard it said that if Shakespeare is acted well enough, you’ll understand what’s going on despite the language barrier. Certainly, it is the job of a Shakespearean actor to make the meaning of the words comprehensible to the audience, and thanks to great actors, we can still appreciate Shakespeare in its original form. But there is a marked difference between laughing at a line because you understand the actor is telling a joke and laughing at a line because you immediately understand the joke the actor is telling. Even the best of actors cannot erase the Elizabethan syntax, allusions, and subtleties that remain obscure to our modern ears.

The festival playwrights thus enable us to fully immerse ourselves in Shakespeare’s creations, increasing the accessibility of the plays while retaining the majesty and lyricism of the original works (yes, I promise you, modern English can sing as much as Shakespeare’s can).

The Tempest, translated by Kenneth Cavander (who also translated Timon of Athens for the project) with dramaturgy by Christian Parker, is a perfect example of how modern English can open up a rich and immediate experience.

The Tempest is the story of Prospero (Kevin Kilner), a man shipwrecked on an island with his daughter, Miranda (Jeena Yi), after his dukedom is seized by his brother Antonio (Jordan Baker). Thirteen years later, Prospero—with the help of his servant, the magical spirit Ariel (Angel Desai)—conjures a tempest to strand Antonio; the King of Naples, Alonso (Jerome Preston Bates); the king’s son, Ferdinand (Ronald Peet); the king’s brother, Sebastian (Abraham Makany); and the king’s councillor, Gonzalo (Olivia Negrón) on the island so Prospero may seek his revenge. The jester Trinculo (Kat Griffin) and drunkard Stephano (Paul Kite) are also shipwrecked on the island, which is inhabited only by Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban (Tony Torn), a “monster” who, like Ariel, is enslaved to Prospero.

Cavander, director Andy Wolk, and the cast breathe fresh comedy and clarity into The Tempest. One of the most confusing scenes to a modern listener (Act II, Scene I) became a joy to watch. The scene begins with Gonzalo trying to cheer up Alonso while Sebastian and Antonio make fun of the councillor, twisting his words and spitting witty retorts. Cavander’s translation sharpens the jokes for our modern ears, allowing Baker and Makany to settle into a rhythm and ease reminiscent of Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets. A strategic edit replacing Dido of Carthage with Helen of Troy cleans up a confusing portion of the scene.

Gonzalo’s speech in which he describes a utopia (drawn from an essay by Michel de Montaigne) is also clarified, providing the audience with the chance to really hear what Gonzalo is saying and consider the various political systems described, enacted, and imposed in the play.

When the king and Gonzalo fall asleep, Antonio suggests that he and Sebastian stab them so Sebastian may take his brother’s throne and reign as King of Naples (echoing Antonio’s own usurpation of his brother, Prospero). Through Cavander’s translation, the audience understands exactly how this subplot unfolds as Antonio convinces Sebastian to consider murder.

The scenes involving Ferdinand and Miranda are incredibly effective, as Peet and Yi portray the hopeless lovers (who have known each other for only a few hours when they decide to marry) with comedic earnestness and naivety. Additionally, Torn delivers a hilarious performance as Caliban, using his skills in comedy to bring some necessary levity to the fraught character. 

The modern English allows for a full appreciation of the different levels of language employed by the characters. When the text is in our version of English, it is much easier to hear the difference between the soaring language of Prospero and the drunken remarks of Stephano. Shakespeare interestingly writes Caliban in verse, not in prose like the other “lower” characters, and the modern English retained, even emphasized, the distinction.

Although thoroughly funny, The Tempest is not presented entirely for laughs. Issues of freedom and forgiveness are particularly given sober moments of consideration. The development of the relationship between Prospero and Ariel, handled delicately by Kilner and Desai, leads to some of the play’s most beautiful and moving moments—including when Ariel asks Prospero, “Do you love me?”— and through Cavander’s translation and the acting choices of Kilner and Torn, a genuine reconciliation between Caliban and Prospero is hinted at during the final scene. 

Although the staging is limited (it is a reading, after all), the magical island of The Tempest is brought to life through the strategic use of music (particularly by the talented Desai), the music stands on which the scripts rest, and a blanket in the case of Torn, giving the performance the buoyant feeling of a game of make believe.

This sense of imagination usually reserved for children’s theatre is perfectly suited to The Tempest. After all, in his closing monologue, Prospero tells us that his project was “to please,” and it is our “indulgence” which will set him free. As this reading conveys, what better objective for telling a tale featuring shipwrecks and spirits, love at first sight and revenge turned to forgiveness, goddesses and monsters, than to delight?

And delight it did.


BCS-friendliness rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I paid $15 at the door for the reading of The Tempest. In advance, the ticket would have been $25 to see one reading; discount packages to see multiple readings were also offered.

Classic Stage Company’s space is set up in a three-quarter round, so the only bad seats for this event were at the extreme ends of the sides; you would have been looking at the backs of the readers. However, there were plenty of seats available for the night I went, so I doubt anyone would have had to sit that far over.

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