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Jason Clark as Ferdinand and Heather Herring as Miranda

The Arts

Something rich and strange

James Gelter embraces the challenge of staging Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ at Living Memorial Park

BRATTLEBORO—James Gelter, the director of Vermont Theater Company’s new production of The Tempest, has been thinking lately about how William Shakespeare is a lot like, of all things, The Beatles.

“One could claim that the two careers are parallel,” Gelter says. “Both start out working within established forms. The Beatles are churning out familiar pop hits like Love Me Do while Shakespeare is reworking classic Roman dramas and comedies with Comedy of Errors and Titus Andronicus.

“Then each moved into what I consider their high period, in which they take established forms to new heights: Shakespeare with his great tragedies Hamlet and King Lear, and The Beatles with classic albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper.

“After that, in their final periods, each worked to recreate the essence of what plays and music are all about. Shakespeare in his romances like The Tempest and The Beatles on the White Album were exploring new territory. Certainly in a play like The Tempest, Shakespeare was presenting something the likes of which had never been done on the stage before.

“Again like The Beatles in their last album, Let It Be, which looks back over the group’s musical career, Shakespeare in The Tempest reflects on his life in the theater. The Tempest is a rumination on the possibilities of stagecraft and the power of imagination.”

The Tempest is VTC’s choice for its 29th annual Shakespeare in the Park production at Living Memorial Park in Brattleboro. It will be performed June 28, 29, and 30, and July 1, at 6 p.m.

Audiences are invited to bring blankets, chairs, and picnics to the performances. In their efforts to share Shakespeare with as much of the community as possible, VTC, as always, asks for only $5 for all admissions. No reservations are necessary.

Mischief, love, betrayal, and beauty

Considered Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest is the strange, comical, and bizarre tale of the exiled Duke Prospero and the magical island he inhabits with his daughter, Miranda. When the noblemen who wronged him sail by, Prospero summons a storm to wreck their ship and bring them to his home.

The result is a journey of mischief, love, betrayal, and beauty. It’s a play that doesn’t fit into any genre or style. Instead, as Gelter noted, it is a final experiment by a master of language to test the limits of his, and the audience’s, imagination.

VTC’s production features Tony Grobe as Prospero, Blair Belt as Ariel, Alex Luckham as Caliban, with additional performances by Jason Clark, Heather Herring, Bill Wieliczka, Shannon Ward, Jesse Crosse-Nickerson, Geof Dolman, Marit Bjerkadal, Dylan Gallagher, Jonathan Kinnersley, Bruce Holloway, Krista Coughlin-Galbraith, Katy Peterson, Veda Crewe, Justin Fetterman, and Connor Dewey.

The show is stage-managed by Justin Fetterman and produced by Mike Jerald and Kate Maisner.

Gelter says he last directed for Shakespeare in the Park “six or seven years ago, when I staged Much Ado about Nothing. But I have been involved in eight other Shakespeare in the Parks, either by performing in or designing for the productions.”

Nonetheless, Gelter has been eager to get back to directing Shakespeare.

“Last year, my wife Jessica directed A Midsummer’s Night Dream for Shakespeare in the Park, and I became jealous,” he confesses. “I said to myself, ‘Hey, I miss this. I got to get back to directing.’”

Gelter personally chose The Tempest for this year’s production.

The Tempest is one of my favorite plays by Shakespeare, even though (or perhaps because) it is a divisive choice,” he says. “For some people, the play is just too weird, while others gladly embrace the fantastic elements which make up its special character.”

Romance out-of-doors

Gelter thought The Tempest would work very well in the park setting.

“Usually VTC chooses Shakespeare’s comedies because they perform well outdoors,” he says. “Even though virtually all of the plays by Shakespeare at one time or another have been done by VTC, a somber tragedy like Lear or Hamlet is much more a challenge in the outdoor setting.”

On the other hand, Gelter thinks Shakespeare’s romances actually benefit by the outdoor setting. “These works play up nature, as well as magic and beautiful images,” he says.

VTC is presenting the entire Tempest, uncut.

“Since The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, we are able to perform it complete,” Gelter says. “That’s not often the case, and consequently a director has to face the difficult decision of what to leave out to make the production last a suitable length of time for a modern audience.”

Gelter fully intended to do precisely that for The Tempest.

“Yet when we did a first table reading of the script, I suggested we first go through it with the full text, just to hear the play at least once in its entirety,” Gelter says. “However, when we did that, not only did nothing seem extraneous but everything seemed perfectly managed in a reasonable amount of time.”

Gelter is delighted with the completeness of this production.

“I have seen and have been in numerous performances of The Tempest, and they always cut or changed things around,” he says. “For instance, one thing usually cut occurs in Act 4 when out of the blue three Roman goddesses descend. While, on the surface, this stops the plot for a bit, I see this interlude as an important element of the total drama.

“Here, Shakespeare is proclaiming what theater can do: It can not just manipulate human characters, but also summon gods onstage. Because of such magic and extravagance, The Tempest is more than mere storytelling but rather a vivid theatrical experience.”

‘A special fantasy world’

Partly because of that idea, Gelter wanted to embrace the unusual aspects of The Tempest.

The Tempest is unlike other Shakespeare plays in that it observes the classic unities of time and place,” Gelter explains. “The drama all takes place on a tiny little island in a mere six hours. Inside this confined world, Shakespeare creates a special fantasy world that is quite new.

“Earlier plays of Shakespeare like A Midsummer’s Night Dream certainly had elements of fantasy in it, with its fairies and comic characters. But these were established figures people already knew, like Puck, Oberon, and the Fairy Queen.

The Tempest is different. Here Shakespeare creates new types of figures never seen before, such as Caliban, who is essentially a fish-man, and Ariel, an air spirit who can also transform into a nymph or harpy. These are strange but delightful figures of the imagination.”

Gelter also believes The Tempest is an unusual fantasy because everyone in it has his or her own take on reality.

The Tempest is all about point of view,” he says. “All the characters have their own ideas about things, such as what the island itself looks like. Everyone sees things differently, and often radically at odds with each other. One thinks the island looks green and another sees it as brown. All of which goes to show that what the characters perceive is less about the object than themselves.”

Gelter has definite ideas about directing Shakespeare in the Park.

“My wife and I both write and direct, and we are constantly exploring alternative venues for performance,” he says. “For the past few years, we both have worked on The Forest of Mystery, the interactive theatrical experience performed in the woods at the Bonnyvale Environmental Educaton Center.

“That certainly influenced how we look at theater space. There, a theatrical production literally travels outdoors from location to location.

“Last year, we resolved to do VTC’s annual performance of A Christmas Carol anywhere but in a theater. When VTC staged it at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, which used to be a train station, we got the idea to present Dickens’ classic as if a traveling band of actors got stranded in a train station and decided to present the show impromptu right then and there.

“In short, the space you perform in informs what you do.”

Similarly, Brattleboro’s Living Memorial Park defines how The Tempest will be presented.

“I am pushing our cast to embrace the fact that we are performing outdoors,” Gelter explains. “That means we have no lights or money sets. Each actor has to hold the audience with his or her performance alone.”

Broad strokes

Scale also is different in this outdoor performance.

“The stage in the park is simply too big for subtlety,” Gelter says. “Things can get lost in it. Here we cannot emphasize little intimate moments of the drama, but rather make broad strokes that the outdoor audience can clearly read from far away.

“Since it’s a big stage, the choices I make as a director are to fill that space. We have built a huge set with slides and a platform, which we can have fun with. We are setting our production in the Elizabethan period, and our costumes are beautiful period pieces, as well as fantastic creations like a magical wizard cape or an enchanting bird outfit.”

Even with all the limitations of presenting Shakespeare in the park, this production will still have some special effects. “The Tempest demands it,” Gelter says. “I want audiences to gasp with happy delight, “Wow, how did that happen?’”

Gelter is beyond pleased with the people he has been working with on The Tempest.

“Even though every director feels compelled to say the same thing, I really must add that I have a remarkable cast,” he says. “Prospero is played by Tony Grobe, whom I have known for 15 years. He was in the first play I directed and we have done dozens of shows together since then.

“The park audience knows him well because he has been in many Shakespeare in the Park productions. Usually he plays broad comedic roles, so here he is doing something new. Prospero is a big part, a full third of the script. But I knew I could trust him with the daunting lead role. He has risen to the challenge of the part. In The Tempest, Grobe uses an acting style I have never seen from him before, and he is remarkable.”

Yet Gelter finds equally impressive the actors in The Tempest who have never been on the stage before.

“I defy any audience to tell the difference from those who have performed for a long time and those for whom this is their first theatrical outing,” he says. “But isn’t that what community theater at its best should be all about: combining the talents of veterans and gifted beginners?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #465 (Wednesday, June 27, 2018). This story appeared on page B1.

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