NEA Arts Magazine

A Brave New World

Folger Shakespeare Library's 21st-Century Tempest

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Todd Scofield

Caliban (Todd Scofield) has a conversation with his imaginary friends, Trinculo and Stephano, in Folger Theatre's production of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Tackling one of Shakespeare's masterpieces is a challenge in itself, but creating a production that takes a classic text and approaches it from a new angle is daring indeed. Folger Shakespeare Library did just that with its production of The Tempest. As Shakespeare wrote this late-career romance, 17th-century Britain was in the midst of its exploration of the "new" world. Tempest director Aaron Posner was able to bring his own distinctly 21st-century sense of exploration to the Bard's work.

Technology played an important role in Posner's reimagining of the classic, and the NEA's grant support played an important role in realizing that vision. Janet Griffin, the Folger's director of public programs, said that Posner's retelling was "technically, a more challenging, ambitious production than we might have been able to accomplish had we not had this grant."

While bringing the current century into classic theater can sometimes be distracting, Posner's careful use of technology deepened and enhanced themes already in the work. For example, in his treatment of Ariel, the director imprisoned the character in a space above the stage, making her invisible to the audience. He then indicated the character's movements through the actor's voice, literally making her voice fly around the theater by using a new sound system. The use of this technology allowed Posner to show the character's physical isolation while reinforcing her qualities as a spirit.

In a similar gesture, as Prospero revealed to his daughter Miranda the treachery that had ultimately marooned them -- that his brother Antonio deposed him and set him adrift with his daughter -- images from the character's past were projected onto a screen above the stage. As Griffin explained, the projections "helped the audience realize how awful it was.When you actually visualize what it must have been like in a small boat with a three-year-old, you know that [his brother] intended him to die." While Posner creatively embraced technology in this production, it's important to note that he wasn't entirely dependent on it. One of the play's most powerful characterizations resulted from the use of good old-fashioned props. Focusing on Shakespeare's description of Caliban as "hissed into madness," the director reinforced the character's insanity and isolation by having the actor also portray the characters Stephano and Trinculo with whom Caliban often trades lines. Usually portrayed by other actors, the characters were instead indicated by a rag wrapped around one of Caliban's hands and an empty bottle in his other.

Between May 9 and June 17 more than 10,000 people saw Posner's version of The Tempest, which mined the past and the present to create a production that was -- to borrow a phrase from Prospero -- "such stuff as dreams are made on."