In a 2012 statement about the changes to the academic calendar, Provost Kent Fuchs suggested that a brief February break (and the subsequent delay of spring break until the very end of March) had been added to the calendar to “help address university concerns about student stress.” Well, that inaugural February break has come and gone, and I, the quintessential stressed student, wish they’d just change things back and pretend this never happened.
What’s the point of two days off from school when professors still assign heaps of homework (and, dare I say, perhaps even more work than usual in an attempt to “make up” for the missed Monday and Tuesday of class time)? The change also makes it harder to coordinate spring breaks with other universities: were it not for the new schedule, my sister and I could have spent our break together with our far-away family.
Yet at least this glorified long weekend gave me a day or so of freedom, including a chance to catch my favorite play of all time at Ithaca’s Hangar Theater.
In the alternate universe where I inevitably fulfill my destiny and become an English teacher, I know exactly which play I’d use to get kids really excited about the Bard. When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to have a great teacher who assigned plays other than classic ninth-grade fare like Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream–and it was in one of his classes where I fell in love with my second- and third-favorite Shakespearean works, Macbeth and King Lear.
Look, I guess I can forgive you if Edmund’s “Why bastard? Wherefore base?” speech doesn’t move you or if the fact that Macduff seemingly beats Macbeth via a deus ex C-section seems a little ridiculous, but I can’t understand how anyone couldn’t fall in love with The Tempest: if only a little!
It starts with a shipwreck and takes place on an island; there are spirits, harpies, hell-hounds, and all sorts of random magic stuff going on; and the language–especially Ariel’s songs–is haunting. Whether you’re into political intrigue, physical comedy, drunk butlers, saccharine Disney-esque “Let’s get married after knowing each other for five seconds!” romance, or just want to know where that oft-misquoted “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” line comes from, I promise there’s something in The Tempest for you.
During my very first semester at Cornell, I had the opportunity to play Miranda in the Cornell Shakespeare Troupe’s winter production of this incredible show. Three years later, I was eager to see the Ithaca Shakespeare Company’s Tempest (which closes this weekend, incidentally) and travel back to the rocky shores of Prospero’s weird island.
I was surprised by how familiar the production seemed. The set was visibly similar to Risley’s, though a little more aesthetically striking, and I felt like the ISC’s Miranda used many of the inflections I did when performing the innocent heroine’s lines. There was one main point of difference, however, that simply blew me away and made me wish that I could get a ride up to the Hangar to see the show a few more times.
One of the most complex aspects of The Tempest is its questionable views on colonialism and imperialism. Since it was written around 1610, long after (deadly) interchange with the “New World” and the Atlantic Slave Trade began, I always found it hard to believe that Prospero’s island paradise didn’t ultimately represent some far-off place “exotic” to a seventeenth-century audience: like the Americas, Africa, or the so-called “West Indies.” After all, Prospero commands all the spirits of the island, and keeps its only human inhabitant (the “savage” Caliban) cruelly enslaved and tortured. Yet if Shakespeare were offering a critique of colonialism, why is Caliban portrayed as a genuine monster, and why is he punished in the end while Prospero remains triumphant?
The Ithaca Shakespeare Company solved this problem by openly identifying Caliban, to quote the program notes, as “an African who has been enslaved by Europeans [who] see him as a monster, a savage, and a ‘thing of darkness’ because he is of a different race from them.” This choice–combined with the fact that Caliban was played by perhaps the most phenomenal actor I have ever had the joy to watch–made the classic “comedy” scenes of Caliban begging two drunk [white] fools to be his gods take on an entirely different tone.
By the end of this production, the audience (or at least this audience member) doesn’t want to laugh at Caliban’s apparent ignorance or shrink from his ridiculous monstrosity, but cry with him and fight for him: and the ISC validated this sentiment by changing the ending so that Prospero, thanks to Ariel’s interference, acknowledges his mistreatment of Caliban and does not punish him along with his inebriated “gods,” Trinculo and Stephano. Consequently, Caliban doesn’t crawl offstage, dragged around on the ground like the monster most other productions (and Shakespeare himself) think he is. Instead, for the first time in the entire play, he walks tall, free of Prospero’s magical punishments and abuse.
Basically, I can’t imagine a more perfect interpretation of The Tempest.
(Except for The Tempest set in Atlantis, of course, which I’ve dreamed of directing since I was fifteen. Community theatre, here I come!)