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Wednesday, 01 February 2006 00:00

A Mysterious Island: ‘The Tempest’ twists and turns in WCU’s Hoey Auditorium Feb. 8-12

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By Michael Beadle

The Duke of Milan and his daughter have been shipwrecked on a strange island far from civilization. Then, along comes a violent tempest that shipwrecks some of the very people who once put them there — and others who now want to marry off the daughter and kill the duke. It seems life couldn’t get any worse — but wait! It’s a William Shakespeare play.

The Duke of Milan is Prospero, a powerful sorcerer who has commanded this storm and knows about the treacherous plots against him thanks to an island spirit named Ariel. But could there be a hitch in Prospero’s plans?

Tune in to see the Western Carolina University Players present “The Tempest” Feb. 8-12 at Hoey Auditorium. All shows start at 7:30 p.m. except the Sunday matinee (Feb. 12), which begins at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12.50 for adults, $10 for seniors and WCU faculty and staff, and $7.50 for students.

The show features a talented cast of student actors — as well as WCU English professor and Hallmark TV movie actor Terry Nienhuis — under the veteran direction of Stephen Ayers.

The play, which is one of Shakespeare’s last, is listed as a comedy, but there’s plenty of drama, political intrigue, and romance as well. There are usurpers who want to take the duke’s power. There’s a love affair between Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, and Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples. There’s the deformed island savage Caliban (played by Nienhuis) and a band of spirits who follow Ariel.

Some scholars have suggested the part of Prospero is really Shakespeare, the poet sorcerer lost in his own imaginary world with critics and theatre competitors plotting to ruin him. But Shakespeare has written Prospero as a forgiving person, and on this island of magic — the stage — there’s a chance to show how art/magic can redeem even those with cruel intentions.

According to Shakespearean scholars, the play was probably inspired by the early voyages to the New World. In June 1609, a fleet of nine British ships set sail for Jamestown, Virginia. A terrible storm scattered the fleet. All but the flagship Sea Venture made their way to Jamestown. When all hope seemed lost that the Sea Venture had been sunk, news returned to England in the fall of 1610 that this ship had been saved with everyone still alive. They had landed among the Bermuda Islands, a dangerous group of islands that had been dubbed “The Devil’s Islands” in sea-faring lore. When this amazing story found its way to England, it became popular news that someone like Shakespeare could surely turn into theatre for the masses.

While some may read into the play certain stereotypes — indigenous tribes portrayed as the savage Caliban, for example — and a new world ready to be exploited by greedy political usurpers, the play is also about redemption and forgiveness. When Prospero has the power to exact revenge on his enemies, he doesn’t. Instead, he uses the opportunity to teach them lessons about themselves.

“The Tempest” may not claim the same kind of fame that “Romeo and Juliet” or “Hamlet” have enjoyed, but it’s Shakespeare on top of his game, waxing poetic on the human experience and marveling at the wonders of the imagination. As Prospero frees Ariel and those who plotted against him, so too does he free himself — as perhaps Shakespeare had to free himself from the world of theatre critics and competitors.

Doing any kind of Shakespearean acting can be intimidating, but the WCU Players are taking the challenge with a mix of humility and poise.

For Trevor Perry, a WCU senior who plays Prospero, it’s a little overwhelming at times doing his first Shakespearean play in the lead role.

“Prospero’s got some great speeches,” Perry said after a recent weekend rehearsal.

Capturing the lyrical rhythms of the language and making it understandable for the modern audience is much more important to him than getting away with faux-British accents or prancing around in tights.

One of the liberties taken with this particular production has been to give traditionally male roles — Ariel, Stephano and Gonzalo — to female actors.

There are also a lot of special effects in this production including pyrotechnics, flash pots, fog machines, and flying actors.

For two extensive six-hour rehearsals the last weekend of January, Ayers brought in Isaac Foust, a flying effects specialist with the Los Angeles-based company ZFX Inc., to stage scenes where actors would fly across the stage. Over a few grueling practices, several WCU actresses learned to strap on a harness and get hoisted up and down on a pendulum pulley system to create Ariel, played by Sara Dodson, was hoisted about eight feet in the air on a track system to give the illusion of hovering in the air. Similar special effects were used in films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — only in the movies, the wires are digitally removed.

So what’s it like to fly?

Once you get past the strain on your back and the groin pain of being pulled up in a harness strapped around your waist and legs, it gets smoother with each attempt, explained WCU senior Hannah Case.

Watching from the audience seats, it’s a tedious process that requires a mix of ballet coordination, balance, and trust in the pulley operator.

“Try to keep your back arched,” Foust instructs. “Think pelvis first.”

After a few hours of his coaching, they ease into flight one by one in a sequence that looks effortless.

“It’s like jumping on a trampoline,” said WCU senior Michelle Crabtree, who found herself sprawled on the floor on a few landings but gradually got the hang of it.

“It makes me feel powerful,” said WCU junior Kendris Myers, who likened flying to that queasy feeling of a roller coaster rising and falling.

As funny as it may sound, having flight experience looks great on an actor’s resume, according to Ayers, associate professor of theatre at WCU.

“It’s a terrific education,” he said.

The flying effects were used about 10 years ago for a WCU Players’ production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” There are about five scenes in “The Tempest” that will include flying effects. With modern technology added to an age-old classic, it’s a chance to give the audience a new view of Shakespeare.

“If Shakespeare could have flown people, he would have,” Ayers said.

For more information about the show, call 828.227.2479 or go to the Web site

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