If you’ve never attended a Nebraska Shakespeare on The Green event, be prepared for a delightful surprise. But then, given its 28 year history, chances are you’ve had such an experience already. So you might take for granted that it is well, thoroughly and congenially organized in every detail. Given that, the time has come again to admire this gathering of citizens amid the trees and on the grass in an evening of friendly entertainment wherein Shakespeare flourishes at the center.
This year The Tempest is one of the two productions. In it, director Rob Urbanati’s staging keeps much of it jovial and accessible featuring performances in which the speeches come across clearly and intelligently, moving the story along earnestly. In addition, he, choreographer Courtney Stein and vocal director Todd Brooks revive the practice of creating a song and dance masque in the fourth act further adding to the impression that this need not be taken too seriously.
That choice contrasts with how the play has been interpreted over the centuries as one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, full of deep meaning of many kinds, including the idea that the author, writing it in his final years, serenely reflected on mortality. The work has also been long admired for beautiful speeches. No such depth becomes evident in these performances. It is not required.
Prospero, the overthrown Duke of Milan, marooned on an island, lives there with his daughter Miranda, the magical sprite Ariel and the quasi-demonic native witch’s son Caliban. Over time Prospero has become a sorcerer. With Ariel’s aid, he conjures up a storm forcing ashore his usurping brother Antonio and the complicit King Alonso of Naples. Caliban hopes to escape his servitude by enlisting the aid of two foolish members of the King’s court, Trinculo and Stephano. Prospero finds a way to allow Miranda and Alonso’s son Ferdinand to become attracted to each other, one of several steps towards reconciliation and peace.
Urbinati and costume designer Lindsay Pape have chosen to make this look as if the island visitors are southern Italians circa the 1950s. The amusing idea is underscored by the inclusion of Italo-American pop songs of that period along with Neapolitan favorites sung and danced with skill by members of the cast and an added eight-member ensemble. Perchè no? Pape has also created a very imaginative, more than human-sized puppet for the fourth act to represent the spirits of Iris, Ceres and Juno as a collective three-part apparition.
Although this play has often been said to focus in depth on the complexities of Prospero, Richard McWilliams interprets him more in a conversational, matter-of-fact way, human rather than noble or mysterious. Most certainly, he gets angry, but not stormily so. He does seem unnecessarily abusive with Caliban, given that Gregg Mozgala’s excellent version of that role suggests a confused young man not a dank, dark creature. Also in the cast, Brendan Ragan and Dan Chevalier successfully get a lot out of the verbal and physical comedy of Stephano and Trinculo.
As a newcomer to such an Omaha experience, I must say I am very impressed with how it feels so well organized and presented. In particular, unlike many other similar outdoor events , attendees needn’t thread their way amid randomly seated people on the grass. The producers have laid out well-marked aisles. And, the night I attended, there was a section for visitors to get sign-language interpretations. There is another on June 28th.
Oh, brave new world that has such people in it.
Shakespeare on the Green continues through July 6 at Elmwood Park, just South of UNO’s Bell Tower. Live music: 7 p.m. Curtain: 8 p.m. Free admission. www.nebraskashakespeare.com