By Joel Applegate
I have been wanting to write about this theatre company for some time now. With their production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the Grassroots Shakespeare Company has given me that chance. They are the Utah branch of a sister company in England. Grassroots Shakespeare was co-founded by Mark Oram in London, who also co-founded the original company here in Utah. They’ve shared script edits before, and the London company also has a current production of The Tempest up and running.
The Tempest was, according to most scholars, Shakespeare’s last play, and has been a consistent favorite of audiences throughout the centuries. Many have said the Bard himself mirrors the denouement of his own life in the person of Prospero, the magician who is the play’s lead character.
Why is Grassroots Shakespeare Company unique?
- It’s not academic.
- It’s far from stodgy.
Throw your preconceptions of what Shakespeare “should” be out the window. You’ve never seen such a wonderful mash-up of traditional conventions, modern wit, transparent theatricality, gender blindness and audience inclusion all aimed at breathing new life into the familiar. The actors know that they are in the presence of an audience, and for this marvelously talented group, it’s no sin to exploit us.
Truncated and lean, nine actors perform the 17-plus roles, riding out The Tempest in just under an hour and a half. Though performed in the Gothic Room of the Masonic Temple in Salt Lake, Grassroots Shakespeare brings its own stage, set up in the room much like it would have been by a troop of itinerant actors presenting at King James’ court. The beards are fake, the scenery painted, the barrels, the trap door platform and the ladders are real. Lest you forget, a banner above the stage proclaims “The Tempest” much like you would have seen waving in the breeze in the market towns of 16th century England.
Our game troupe opens with music and a juggling act. The juggler warms up the crowd before the whole cast lines up center stage to introduce the action. They encourage and assure the audience that it’s okay to interact with the characters. If a question is asked, by all means, answer the actor! Welcome to the ranks of the 21st century groundlings.
I loved some of the devices used: a key represented a Dukedom and a punked-out doll stood in for Caliban’s birth story. It’s a really smart idea to have Prospero release his frozen enemies from the spell he cast by handing them lighted candles. Nearly all of Ariel’s and the various spirit’s songs were set to familiar Christmas tunes in keeping with the season. The actor doubling, especially in the second half of the show, led to some very quick costume switching. With just a couple of exceptions, which needed a cleaner transition, they pulled it off with dizzying skill.
Not all the actors were evenly matched. Sometimes the right cadence was missing to deliver the sense of the line, and on occasion, I had trouble hearing some of the lines in the back where I was sitting. But overall, the audience was completely on board. They booed and cheered when shamelessly prompted by actors breaking protocol, applauded after the drunk scenes and responded to Caliban’s coaching by growling like bulls and roaring like lions.
As our master of magical events, Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan, Daniel Fenton Anderson was nicely cast as both the scholar and the sorcerer. In one example of the surprising choices this company makes, Prospero uses a painful grip, something of a martial arts hold, to warn Ferdinand against taking Miranda’s virginity before “all sanctimonious ceremonies” are done. In his costume of head tattoos and Renaissance Fair cloak, he guided the plot with authority.
Acrobatic Tyson Cantrell as Ariel flies on and off the stage as you would expect a sprite to do. He uses the whole space, ladders and balcony, toying with mortals and appealing directly to the audience for release from Prospero’s service.
Miranda is Prospero’s daughter, a modern girl who stomps her foot to get what she wants (“allay them!”) and blows her nose on Prospero’s magic garment. Alex Wintch brings an up-to-date sensibility to the role, flirting throughout – and despite of – her flowery naivete.
As her suitor, Ferdinand, William Kalmar’s all-American good looks would work against him if he weren’t so busy being in on the joke. His asides are delivered to the audience with a nod and a slight leer. Like the big man on campus, he delivers a punchiness that must be rare in most Ferdinands. When he lands a line on Miranda, he winks at his own wooing skills.
Steven Pond as Caliban shows he’s a skilled actor. Like Ariel, the role demands a lot of physicality. He scrambles, moans and threatens, with more than a few great moments. He pokes his head out to shush the audience during the “strange bedfellows” scene. He progresses from comic conspiracy to embarrassed remorse. Pond also doubles doing good work as the wrecked ship’s yeoman and one of the Spirits. In drag he’s hilarious singing his ditty in a deep male voice.
In another example of Grassroot’s very clever casting, the co-conspirators who would murder the King of Naples, Antonio and Sebastian, also double as the drunken low-lifes, Stephano and Trinculo. Andy Hansen doubles the roles of Antonio and Stephano, and Phil Varney doubles as Sebastian and Trinculo. They stick their heads through curtains to land a line and play well off each other. Hansen is especially pleasing in what has to be a deliberately bad wig and beard as Stephano, and then shows skilled versatility as Antonio. In yet more audience inclusion, Varney is banished to an empty seat in the audience from which he delivers a line or two, before being allowed back into the scene by Hansen.
The venue in the Masonic Temple is a treat to visit, and provided great viewing in comfortable benches and chairs. It’s beautiful and historic and all Salt Lakers should be aware of its provenance. In keeping with the original presentations of Shakespeare’s plays, the company uses only the lighting available in the venue. While I understand this, I personally would have preferred actors who were better lit. Sound was provided by the great musicianship of a small combo in the balcony consisting of just an accordionist, a guitar player, a drummer and a percussionist. Their music was appropriate and their notes accented the magic happening on the platform.
Curtain Call turned into a jig. After a scant 32 hours of rehearsal, with no director (as was the case in Elizabethan times) or designers except the actors themselves, this company has a right to dance. The old-fashioned theatre craft is part of the audience’s experience as much as the story. What goes on backstage is just as important as what the audience sees. After every performance, the actors meet for a “postmortem”. Actors picked their own clothes for costumes, whether it was an orange life vest or epaulets – anything that worked. Even if you saw a modern accoutrement, what remains important to this company is the authenticity of the experience the audience is having. I encourage you to get tickets now, because there are only three more performances left here in Utah: Dec 29, and January 4th and 5th.
Grassroots Shakespeare Company at Masonic Temple, 650 E South Temple, Salt Lake City
Performances December 28th and 29th and January 4th and 5th.
Tickets are just $8 – Less than a movie!