If you’re tempted to see “The Tempest,” be warned: although this is a free production, it may not be worth your time. As the debut production from the brand new company East Lansing Community Theatre, William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is a safe bet with a fantastical plot and some juicy, timeless lines.
But apart from some above average performances from a very dedicated and energetic cast and crew, the production feels more like playtime for the cast, audience be damned.
In case you missed the MSU Department of Theatre’s production last season or have not read the Cliffs Notes since high school, “The Tempest” is the supernatural revenge story of a wronged man turned magical-island-wizard Prospero (Steve Ledyard) reclaiming his rightful throne. It’s more a comedy in that everyone lives but a dark and weird one filled with lots of interweaving characters, motives and magic. And although the characters are Italian royalty suggesting a period long ago, the script — like many Shakespeare plays — could arguably be set anywhere or anytime.
One of the biggest problems with this production is director and company founder Mike Stewart turns “anywhere or anytime” into a mantra by seemingly picking simultaneous times and places. Costumes and props jump from modern — Glocks instead of swords — to vintage — boxy sport coats and fedoras. And scene changes accompanied by the sounds of Benny Goodman lend a distinctly ‘30s vibe —until the smooth jazz starts. When in the same show, spirit “deities” wear matching tiedyed t-shirts and another character makes an out-of-nowhere dig at the University of Michigan, it’s clear that Stewart has no interest in maintaining visual consistency.
To its credit, the cast seem unfazed by Stewart’s schizophrenic — and understandably low-budget — aesthetic. A few standouts include Chanae Houska and Sarah Hauck. As Prospero’s magical fairy assistant/slave Ariel, Houska prances around the stage with pink hair and a sparkly skirt. Houska not only has good diction, but she also seems to understand her character and her complex relationship with Prospero. And Hauck really commits to her movement and performance as the supposedly, deformed, ogre-ish Caliban. Her costume — overalls with yellow, pocked face paint and spiky hair – reads more “hillbilly” than hideous, but Hauck lumbers across the stage —sometimes on all fours — like a human/animal hybrid, making her one of the few characters with a unique walk.
Sadly the biggest disappointment may be Ledyard as the scheming anti-hero Prospero. Having played many complex roles, Ledyard is capable of more than he showed on Saturday night. Prospero is a righteous, brilliant, passionate character who threatens and manipulates his own allies to achieve his goals through carefully timed tricks. Yet Ledyard projected very little sense of urgency or excitement —even to the second row.
On the technical side, Stewart’s light and sound cues including lighting and thunder are perfectly timed throughout. And the papier-mâché logs and rocks are adequate for a tight budgeted production like this.
Arguably, this cast and crew could perform this show without a stage or audience, and many of the cast members have, with defunct Shakespeare-centric companies like Sunsets with Shakespeare and Shakespeare on the Grand. But for the most part, their passion cannot magically transform this production beyond a bare-minimum offering.
“The Tempest” East Lansing Community
Theatre Company Sept. 21-23 7 p.m. Thurs., Fri., Sat. FREE East Lansing Hannah Community Center 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing (517) 333-2580, ow.ly/Oo8n30fflf6