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August 29, 2013

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Shakespeare’s magical island reappears at Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga

Shakespeare never shied away from using magic in his plays. Magic, in fact, plays a big part in several of his most popular works: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Macbeth,” and the play that was very likely the last he wrote as a solo artist, “The Tempest.”

This tale of a magical island inhabited by a former duke, Prospero, who is now a sorcerer, his daughter Miranda, the monster Caliban and the spirit Ariel will be presented by the Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga beginning Sept. 5.

“It’s my favorite play of Shakespeare’s,” says Jeffrey Parker, who directs. “When I saw it for the first time, I thought, ‘There’s not a part in this play that I would not want to be.’”

Scholars believe that the magician Prospero, who unforgettably describes the world, magic and the stage in the famous speech beginning, “Our revels now are ended. These our actors/As I foretold you, are all spirits and/Are melted into air, into thin air” is Shakespeare’s stand-in. When, a little later in the play, he says, “And deeper than did ever plummet sound/I’ll drown my book,” it is Shakespeare’s good-by to the world that made him immortal.

Parker mentions Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series, “The Sandman.” “The last story in Volume 10 is about Shakespeare’s life while he was writing ‘The Tempest.’ When Shakespeare begins to write the play’s epilogue, I cried,” he says. “It is profoundly moving.”

But lest you think “The Tempest” is a weepy downer, Parker notes that it also contains some of the Bard’s funniest clowns, in the persons of shipwrecked sailors Stephano and Trinculo, who manage to form an unholy alliance with Caliban. No spoiler alert is needed to point out this does not turn out well—but is hilarious.

“I have a soft spot for clowns and magic,” Parker says, making it the perfect choice for the Chattanooga State theatre arts professor in his directorial debut at ETC. 

The company cast the show back in March, and it features some familiar faces: ETC founder Garry Lee Posey as Prospero, co-artistic director Christy Gallo as Ariel, and ensemble members Jeremy Wilkins as Caliban and Eric Phillips as Trinculo. Marcia Parks plays Prospero’s evil brother Alonzo, genderbent in this production as Alonza. 

Asked about the setting for the play, Parker says, “It’s not specifically 1610, but it’s not modern dress. It’s set in an imagined world that’s part ‘Brave New World’ [which takes its title from a line in the play] and part ‘Game of Thrones.’ There is a chaotic, natural part of the this world in conflict with a sterile, ordered, militarized one.” 

He’s cut the play down, as has been customary all the way back to Shakespeare’s own time, trimming some of the long scenes that are difficult to understand and don’t advance the plot. “This play is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible to modern audiences,” he emphasizes. “There’s something for everyone: singing, dancing, family drama, and, course, magic.” As for the theory that Prospero’s relationships with Ariel and Caliban mirror the Bard’s own with daughters Judith and Susanna, well, that just adds another fillip of historical mystery, says Parker.

“The Tempest,” though written long before anyone invented the term, is a perfect example of “magic realism,” he says.

And as Prospero himself says: “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”

“The Tempest,” Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga, 5900 Brainerd Rd. (inside Eastgate Town Centre. Opens Sept. 5, plays 7:30 p.m. Thu-Sat, 2:30 p.m. Sun through Sept. 15. $15/$10 student with valid ID. (423) 987-5151, ensembletheatreofchattanooga.com

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August 29, 2013

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