Did you know this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death? Theater-rats have been told this a hundred times by now, but it bears reconsidering. In the course of four centuries, audiences have remained entranced by his work—the same plots, characters, and dialogue—unchanged, ever since.
Shakespeare has a truly universal appeal and it's the Shakespeare Theatre Company's latest production, The Tempest, now playing at the Sidney Harman Hall through August 28, which makes a fitting tribute. It's this summer's iteration of Free For All, a great Washington tradition, ongoing since 1991.
Admission is, yes, free for all, and over the years the Company has opened its doors to over half a million people. This summer, 12,000 lottery winners will get a chance to see the show.
And this production is not just some English accents and dinner-plate sized lace ruffs on an empty stage. The Tempest is top-notch. Directed by Ethan McSweeny, who humbly describes himself as at a career mid-point, but has nearly a hundred credits to his name, nationally and internationally, on and off-Broadway. If you watched last year's Free For All, it was McSweeny who directed A Midsummer Night's Dream—and the Merchant of Venice in 2013!
This year, the Company has created a dreamlike spectacle. The set creates an immediate impression—sand—lots of beautiful white sand, five tons actually, piled to literally create the desert island setting, replete with a sun bleached wreck and topmast. Ariel, the island sprite, played by Sara Topham, also a returner from last year's production, flies on thick hemp rope. A ghostly ensemble, invisible to the players, enact the illusions created by the magician Prospero, directing enormous supernatural puppets one minute and becoming a pack of howling chase dogs the next. There's no scene change, and characters simply appear through trapdoors in a flurry of sand. Not like a magic trick, but like a dream, in which everything makes terrifying, beautiful sense until you finally wake up.
Like all good Shakespeare, The Tempest manages to marry hysterical comedy, adorable romance, and menacing violence on the same stage, and makes itself clear no matter how antique the English. Academics extoll the humanity of the Bard's work, his ability to speak to all people in all places and times, but it's the Shakespeare Theatre Company that proves that theory again and again with Free For All. Regular theatre patrons sit next to boys from D.C. public schools, next to men and women off the streets who may have never had the chance to see a stage performance, much less world-class Shakespeare. If his appeal is universal, it seems right and good his work be made accessible.
The drunken antics of Caliban (Clifton Duncan), Trinculo (Liam Craig), and Stephano (Dave Quay) put the audience in hysterics. The sand, which really deserves its own bio in the playbill, allowed them to revel with tipsy abandon, conspire against Prospero, and cleanly upchuck kegs of sack. All grown-ups should wish they could enjoy that classic, naughty scene under the tarp, when all three drunks think they've found half a monster, as much as the fifth and sixth grade boys in the front rows. Their own appreciation for euphemism rivals that of ol' Will himself.
Ultimately, the play's emotional, sympathetic core, the moments which will stick with the audience longest, are thanks to Prospero. Played by veteran Broadway actor Patrick Page, who is widely regarded as one of the country's finest classical actors, Prospero pitches and rolls from caring father, to cruel master, and controlling sorcerer, finally surrendering his power, and sinking to repentance.
The Tempest was Shakespeare's final play. Considering the lasting impact of his work, the power of his spell over our English language and literature, undiminished after four hundred years, his final words, spoken by Prospero, take on great significance. He says to the audience, "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep." It's a great human moment and Page plays it perfectly. All the world's a stage, we play our parts, and exit quickly – even Shakespeare.
The Shakespeare Theater Company's The Tempest is an all-around excellent production, and provided free to the universal audience Shakespeare speaks volumes to. It's a good work, done well.
The Tempest will play at Sidney Harman Hall, August 16 – 28.