So! I packed up the family, took the day off work Friday and headed down Cape Cod for a "Kiddie Shakes" production of The Tempest. All my regular readers will know how exciting this was for me - The Tempest being the way I introduced my kids to Shakespeare, telling it to them as a bedtime story for as long as they can remember. So the idea of that being their first performance (even better, a special kids' version of the show), was too good to pass up.
Took us a little while to find it. With only the location "Mashpee Commons" in mind, I'm heading into this thinking "Boston Common" - some sort of big grassy lawn where we can spread a blanket, maybe set up some chairs. When I turned into the area called Mashpee Commons and found what could best be termed an outdoor shopping mall, I was just a little confused. Eventually security told us "It's between the movie theatre and the Banana Republic", and darn it all, that's exactly where it was. No grassy area, just a brick courtyard sort of a thingie where they'd set up, god, maybe 30 or so plastic lawn chairs. There were no signs at all saying what was going on, just a handful of props strewn about the ground.
You know what?
I LOVED IT.
Out came the cast from behind a hastily hung screen in the corner, not even 10 of them. They were all young - I'd be surprised if any of them had hit their mid 30's. The cast was mostly female, so Prospero and Antonio were both played by women (as well as Trinculo, who also played the narrator, but it seems to me that Trinculo is often cast as a woman). The story then became everything that I love about trying to explain Shakespeare to people. First, Trinculo (whose real name was Tessa) would narrate, in a sort of Dr. Seuss rhyming style. But then, this is the best part, they switched back over to legitimate performance of the actual text! Sure they cut bits here and there (more on that later), but the important thing is that they didn't paraphrase. They didn't give new lines to anybody to make it easier. That's what the narrator was there for. So you've got one person talking to the audience saying, "Here's what's about to happen (e.g. Stefano and Trinculo, with Caliban, plot to take over the island), and then you get that scene. My wife came away saying "Now that one I really liked, I understood every word."
Since the whole thing ran 45 minutes they certainly cut a bunch, and particularly toward the end it seemed to wrap up very quickly. For my taste I could have watched them do the whole play this way - it's not like it's that long of a play to begin with. Gonzalo was completely eliminated, which I was a little sad about, I like him. They left in his first speech (about an acre of dry land), giving it to a random sailor who never appeared again. But that was it - nobody tried to kill him as he slept next to the king, and he was not around to be reunited with his friend Prospero. I happened to be around for the later show (while my kids got ice cream and watched a juggler), and Gonzalo was even edited out of the grown up version.
The show had clearly been organized to showcase Ariel and Caliban, since they ended up with the most stage time. All the other humans (including Prospero) seemed more at the whim of the narrator who could cut them off and say "...and then this happens" and that was the end of that. Caliban, on the other hand, really threw himself into the role, cackling like a fiend and leaping through his scenes all hunched over like some frog-like henchman from a monster movie. Ariel, in contrast was...hmmm, what's a good adjective for Ariel? Ariel (played by Ben, whom I'd spoken to online to tell I was coming to the show) was really the center of attention, and I mean that in a variety of ways. He seemed to tower over the rest of the cast. And whenever he was on stage he came with special effects, whether noise makers (a drum and a thunder machine, in particular), a chorus of fairies to sing with him (they were quite good), or just a bunch of sheets that served as everything from ocean to stage-within-the-stage (for Prospero's wedding gift to the children) to Ariel's Fury costume. They did a lot with what they had. (By the way, is it always that hard to fit "suffer a sea-change" into the rhythm of the song? Never seems to fit right, both when I've heard it and when I've tried to sing it myself.)
How was the performance? Given the setting it was darned near "Shakespeare in the wild". Clearly an act of love for what they were doing. Shoppers were walking all around, and at least once somebody walked through the set. But they persevered. I was in awe, the entire time. Maybe I'm a special case - here's a bunch of people acting out my children's bedtime stories, something I could never hope to do. None of them seemed like "seasoned professionals" (although perhaps they all hope to be some day :)), and nobody passed the hat. I was surprised at that last, I was all set to contribute. Perhaps it came out later, during the adult performance? Only one time did I flinch at a directorial choice, and that's when the narrator introduced the monster "Cackle-a-ban", and I was like, "ummm...what?" Then the actors came out and referred to him as Caliban, and I thought "Perhaps that was a mistake." No - in narration, they named him Cackleaban, but in the play he remained Caliban. I don't understand that.
The cast hung out after the show, letting the kids play with the props and asking questions about the story. As always my kids froze under pressure of being asked a direct question, but hey, I'm working on them :). We hung out waiting for Ben, which must have come across like we were some sort of fan club - "Hey Ben, there's a guy and his wife and kids out here asking for you!" I felt awkward not just jumping in and hanging out with the whole cast, but I haven't quite gotten used to just walking up to people and saying "Hi, I'm Duane from ShakespeareGeek.com" unless I've had some sort of connection with them. Makes me feel like a newspaper reporter looking for a story or something. Perhaps I'll have to get used to that however, as Ben came out of the dressing area (out of costume) and said, "You must be Duane from Shakespeare Geek?" and the rest of the cast said, "Oh! You're the one he's been telling us about!" So, Ben, my apologies to the rest of the gang if I seemed at all rude.
In all, it was the time of my life. I'd spend my entire summer going to shows like that if I could. It fired on all cylinders for me - a show that my family knew and could understand, performed in a small enough venue that we could comfortably watch and enjoy it, keeping "original" text (yes yes, I know), by a cast small and friendly enough to hang out and talk to us after. So glad I went! Highly recommended. Even if you can't get to this particular show, go find your local group that does something similar and go put some butts in the seats for them.