In an era when popular culture is defined in large part by the American music and fashion industries, the works of William Shakespeare have about as much street cred as Vanilla Ice. But thanks to the new national theater initiative Shakespeare for a New Generation, the Bard is enjoying a bit of an old-school revival.
Last week, as part of the project, the N.Y.C-based The Acting Company brought its production of The Tempest to UCSB. Very nearly 400 years old, The Tempest has all the essential ingredients of a modern romantic comedy: a young, love-struck couple, a few complications, a healthy dose of slapstick, and a happy ending. It’s not quite sex, drugs, and violence, but in the hands of this stellar cast and under the direction of Davis McCallum, The Tempest became what Vanilla Ice will never be again-timely.
This production captures something that’s often lacking in more “traditional” productions of Shakespearean comedy: true social satire, which only works when it references the society for which it is performed. It makes perfect sense that a 21st century Trinculo the clown should wear a polyester suit with high-water pants and a stubby tie, and that the monster Caliban’s anger at being enslaved by Prospero should be expressed in a raging death metal tirade.
Of course, transplanting Shakespeare is no new thing; Baz Luhrmann relocated Romeo and Juliet to a fictionalized Los Angeles, and Michael Almereyda’s updated Hamlet unfolded in modern New York City. But the genre of comedy in some ways travels in time better than tragedy, and the stage is often a richer vessel for the imagination than the silver screen.
In this Tempest, a piece of rolling scaffolding, an orange blanket, an office chair, and a few trap doors comprise the set. Prospero wears plaid pajamas; his daughter Miranda sports hot pink tights. When young Ferdinand washes up on the island, he does so in a white hoodie, metallic jeans, and gold sneakers. More importantly, every actor in this production finds ways to make the script ring with relevance. In Ariel’s thirst for freedom, Miranda’s girlish eagerness, Antonio’s criminal intentions, and even in Stephano’s alcoholism, we recognize the highs and lows of our own humanity, more familiar than any music video.