“I used to be a magician” writes Damon Kiely in his director’s notes to Prospero’s Storm, his adaptation of The Tempest. Kiely is talking about the power of a parent to astonish his children with his control over the world—a control which children can only envy until, as they grow up, it becomes less magical; something they can aspire to, and eventually achieve for themselves.
Prospero’s Storm may be marketed primarily towards children, but it is not “children’s theater,” at least not in the pejorative sense that the term often carries. This is smart, sophisticated theater, a thoughtful adaptation which explores The Tempest while opening up aspects of the story that inflect our reading of the original—in short, it does exactly what an adaptation should do.
Several of the design elements of Prospero’s Storm are decidedly Brechtian. The most well-known directive of Brecht’s epic theater is that plays should make an effort to remind their audiences that they are at a play, and that theater means something. Like Shakespeare, a lot of people claim to hate Brecht, but like Shakespeare, his legacy lives on in practically everything we do in the theater, especially in twenty-first century Chicago. It lives on in theaters that do explicitly political work, like Oracle and Trapdoor. It lives on in the way that many of his techniques for distancing (or alienating as it is often, though problematically, translated) his audience from the world of the play have become so conventional—like directly addressing the audience or using film clips during the play—that they no longer have much of a distancing effect. And it lives on in the worst tradition of children’s theater where plays preach to a crowd of young audience members, making sure they understand the moral of the story as if the story couldn’t do that itself. Kiely’s show is rich with design elements that do the kind of distancing Brecht espoused, without falling into preaching.
Prospero’s Storm opens with a voice-over introduction that, amongst the usual admonitions to turn off cell phones and not take pictures, actually tells the audience what the show is about. “The Magical, Musical-Theatrical Tale of the Wretched Wizard Who Sought Revenge on his Enemies with a Terrible Sea-Tempest but through the Power of Love Learned Mercy, Forbearance, and Ultimate Wisdom.” For many fans of Shakespeare, this is old news. For others it might be cause for debate. But for the audience of Prospero’s Storm, it is certainly distancing; a reminder that we are in a theater, and an attempt to tell us how to read the following performance. What makes it fascinating, however, is that it is completely misleading. One can argue about whose story The Tempest is, but Prospero’s Storm, despite its title and despite the prologue, is more Miranda’s than her father’s. This is not, perhaps, surprising in a play marketed to children; Miranda is a much more relatable character for most young audience members. Much of the intricate plotting of the court—so important to Prospero—is edited out. But then, so is much of the action around the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand. Of course they meet and fall in love, and we get some brief moments of Ferdinand performing the manual labor that Prospero has set for him, but it is not the focus of Miranda’s story. In this play, being interested in romance is part of growing up but being a grown-up is about much more than getting married. Again, a message that could be seen as particularly appropriate for a children’s show, but which is welcome in
In The Tempest we are told that Caliban had attempted to rape Miranda. In Prospero’s Storm we once again are shown what Shakespeare simply tells, and what we see is Miranda and Caliban, best of childhood friends, tentatively trying out a child’s first kiss. Of course Prospero sees it differently, and his reaction is both utterly disproportionate and completely predictable.
Perhaps the most effective new material is Miranda’s curiosity about her mother. In The Tempest, Miranda wonders what she “is,” but we suspect that Prospero’s hundred-and-fifty-line exposition of their history is not particularly interesting to her; once begun, her responses are a few questions and several brief assurances that she is listening. Prospero’s Storm dispenses with the majority of that monologue in favor of a dumb show with placards for a few lines in the style of a silent movie (another Brechtian technique). At the end of it, Miranda impatiently begins to ask, “But who is my…” and is cut off by Prospero putting her to sleep. She manages to ask again later, only once more to be put off. But in the end, during the resolution scene, we finally get to hear the story of Prospero’s wife, who is mentioned in The Tempest only to make a clichéd joke about fidelity. In Prospero’s Storm Prospero summons his wife’s spirit to sing her story—how when Miranda was born a witch cursed the child to die, and Miranda’s mother traded her own life for that of her daughter. All Prospero’s magical studies which consumed his attention to the point that he lost his dukedom were to the end of trying to bring her back to life.
Prospero, here, is tyrannical with his powers; he puts Miranda to sleep with upsetting (both to us and to Miranda) regularity. Caliban’s monstrousness is cast into doubt, making Prospero’s treatment of him more monstrous. Ariel’s repeated importunings for her freedom are met with assurances that in this production, even more than in Shakespeare’s text, ring insincere. Portraying Prospero with less sympathy strengthens Miranda’s role and focuses our attention more on her narrative arc. This pays off beautifully at the end; Prospero refuses to release Ariel and it is Miranda who, usurping lines that Shakespeare gave her father, convinces him to abjure this rough magic, break his staff and bury it certain fathoms in the earth.
Prospero’s Storm is a study in how a play can be adapted to tell a different story while still being true to the source. Choices that might seem to lead us in one direction, in the end bring us back to where we thought we had started: by making Prospero less sympathetic, we end up understanding him better. By backgrounding Miranda’s marriage plot, we foreground the magic of her growing up. And by distancing the audience from the world of the story, we bring the point more closely into view.
Richard Gilbert is a doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on representations of violence in the theater, as well as adaptations and versionality. He holds an MA in humanities from University of Chicago, and a BA in theater from Brandeis University.