It’s Friday afternoon, one week before opening night for a new production of The Tempest. John Blondell, Lit Moon Theatre Company artistic director, has a sore throat, but he’s still happy to talk — especially about directing Shakespeare. This will be Lit Moon’s third version of The Tempest, a play that the company began working on for the 2006 World Shakespeare Festival, but this time around, Blondell, who thrives on challenges, has decided on a completely different approach. “Before, we did the show with only four actors, and that required extensive cuts in order to work,” he says. “This time, with seven people in the cast, we can stage the whole script as it was written.”
Of course, since Lit Moon is involved, one probably shouldn’t take that last phrase too literally. While the company will most certainly speak every line of Shakespeare’s magically poetic text, the show is most definitely a departure from more conventional forms of theatrical naturalism. At times, due to the casting of most of the seven actors in multiple roles, players will have to speak both sides of a single exchange or even a whole scene. “If you have one actor playing two different characters, and those two characters have a scene together, what do you do?” Blondell asks. “By doing every scene in the play with just seven people, from an acting point of view, we’ve doubled ourselves into a corner,” he tells me, then pauses before exclaiming, “I love that!”
What could possibly appeal to this very accomplished and internationally recognized director about such a seemingly insurmountable dilemma? Blondell explains: “I love the constraints. I enjoy setting up difficult and even restrictive conditions for our work because I think that that’s when you get something really inspired: when you try something a few ways and realize that there is only one solution.” Those who saw Lit Moon’s 2006 production of The Tempest will likely remember the onstage seating and the forest of hanging bamboo that turned Center Stage into an island jungle. The bamboo is back, but the onstage seating and hanging configuration are both gone. This time, the audience will sit in the standard bleacher seats of Center Stage’s black box, but what’s happening onstage will be organized in a way that’s very unusual. Bamboo rods will make a big, island-like circle with only one entrance and one exit. Again, the idea is to cut down on the options and see how that affects the actors.
As for the tone, comedy takes the fore in this interpretation. “Our original concept in 2006 involved the idea that, as Prospero says, ‘every third thought shall be my grave.’ So we did [the play] as a poetic allegory of the coming of death,” Blondell recalls. “This time, we wanted to bring out the comic spirit, and since there’s so much comedic talent in the cast, we were able to really blow the lid off that aspect of the play.
“Shakespeare revels in contrast,” Blondell continues. “He loves to follow a comic scene with a tragic one, and vice versa. So that’s what I’ve emphasized this time around — his incredible facility with changing the atmosphere. When we began, I told the actors that I wanted three things from them — to keep it simple, to make it dynamic, and to change the atmosphere. Shakespeare was a musical writer, and his chief compositional technique is contrast. We’re just out here playing those changes.”
The Tempest is part of a two-week run of Shakespeare productions at Center Stage Theater that also includes the excellent recent staging of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Irwin Appel for Naked Shakes at UCSB. See them both, and revel in the contrast.
The Tempest is at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo) Thursday-Friday, October 18-19; Thursday, October 25; and Saturday-Sunday, October 27-28. All shows are at 8 p.m., except Sunday’s, which is at 4 p.m. The Merchant of Venice will also be at Center Stage Saturday-Sunday, October 20-21. Call 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org for tickets and info.