Written by William Shakespeare, performed by Daydreams and Nightmares Aerial Theatre
At Theatre Project through Aug. 31
Every director, actor, stage manager, backstage crew person, and playwright has a horror story to tell. Perhaps it was that time funding fell through and an entire production was pushed back six months. Or the time the entire cast got sick and got through opening weekend running 102-degree fevers. Or that time the set change between the first and second acts for some reason took almost 10 minutes. These are the variables that can plague productions, and while they suck when they happen, they often become war stories exchanged over drinks. So in a few months it's highly likely that the cast and crew of Daydreams and Nightmares' production of The Tempest, currently in production at the Theatre Project, might be able to look back and say, "Remember that time we lost our lead three days before opening night?" and laugh about it, but right now they're commendably holding an entire production together following an 11th-hour changeup.
With a steely calm, DNA's artistic and general director, Kel Millionie, introduced this past Saturday's performance with the usual pre-game announcements: check in on Facebook and then silence phones, check out what the company and the venue has coming up, the play is running about 75 minutes, and due to unforeseen circumstances an actor had to drop out on Tuesday, meaning tonight's production will feature a Prospero reading from a script. So credit Rena Brault, the young actress making her DNA debut with this production, not only for stepping in but for making the best of a difficult job. Shakespeare works best when actors have the chance to find their own timing and reading of his singsong iambs, and while Brault is obviously familiar with the script and has a handle on Prospero's character, she's still the drummer in the drumline who is a little offbeat at times, trying to gel with the cadence of the dialogue's flow and flubbing a beat or two. It's totally forgivable and understandable, and in the stretches where she has memorized her lines, her entire presence takes on a confidence that's more hesitant when she has to consult the script.
Those moments offer brief glimpses of what this Tempest might look like, because DNA has come up with an interesting take on the tale. In this streamlined version, Prospero (Brault) and his daughter, Miranda (Cori Dioquino), remain stranded on an island. Prospero, thanks to his books, still has magic powers, able to summon the spirit Ariel (Tom Martin) to do his bidding. And Prospero has still enslaved the deformed Caliban (a very good Tony Byrd), a deformed creature on the island. Prospero stirs up a storm to send his brother Antonio's (Sean James) passing ship aground, and Miranda falls for the shipwrecked Ferdinand (Greg Bowen), son of the King of Naples, Alonso (Sami Haidar).
In the wreckage, Ferdinand is separated from Alonso, Antonio, the gentle Gonzalo (Wayne Nicolosi), and Sebastian (Kaya Vision), Alonso's brother, who is plotting with Antonio to kill Alonso. Meanwhile, Stephano (William McHattie) and Trinculo (Erin Boots), two of the lower members of Antonio's entourage, make off with the ship's wine and team up with Caliban to steal Prospero's books and overthrow him.
Shakespeare's ornate language is put in service of a soap-opera plot here, and DNA's young cast and the droll enthusiasm they bring to scheming give this production a touch of the TV show Revenge's dishiness and insolence. Boots' Trinculo and McHattie's Stephano, especially, lend the play an element of the young-adult drama, with Boots giving Trinculo, a court jester, an airheaded mirth and McHattie lending Stephano a James Spader-ish shade as the guy who knows how to get the drugs and wants to see what he can get in exchange. Best of all is Vision's Sebastian, who plots Antonio's death with the kind of disaffected apathy of a bored sociopath.
This approach is more a theatrical interpretation with aerial elements than it is an entirely aerial production, as mostly the supernatural beings-Ariel, the Kraken (realized by Elle Brande and Erika Lipitz), and the spirits and goddesses Ceres (Jessie Delaplaine), Iris (Lipitz again), and Juno (Patrice Woodard)-are realized as airborne creatures, delivering lines and performing elevated off the ground. It comes off as a whimsical touch, lending a dash of the dreamy to characters that can feel too earthbound in a more conventional approach. Martin's Ariel practically flits around the stage, so when he effortlessly pulls himself up to the Theatre Project's ceiling on a pair of ribbons, it seems as if gravity can't tether him to ground, and the three performers realizing Ceres, Iris, and Juno offer an impressive display of body contortions and gymnastics movement to make the creatures feel not of this earth.
All of which, again, only makes you wish the entire production was as smoothly polished. The Tempest is a malleable text, able to take the stylistic changes of filmmakers Paul Mazursky (who sets it in the present day with John Cassavetes as the Prospero character, an architect), Julie Taymor (with Helen Mirren as Prospera), and Peter Greenaway (whose baroquely opulent Prospero's Books gave John Gielgud's Prospero an authorial role in the story in which he is featured) and remain a thoughtful interpretation. DNA had already put a great deal of imaginative thought into its streamlined production that when Prospero had to be replaced, perhaps it could have figured out a way to incorporate the script as a prop into its theatrical universe-integrate the last-minute change into role instead of saddling Brault with a physical reminder that she's not always on the same level as everybody else. She's a total trooper for pulling it off, and overall it's a fun experience-with the asterisk that you feel like you're watching a production where the lead is still figuring out how to fit herself into its well-oiled machine.