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Never one to tiptoe into a new frontier, the Blackbird Theatre gallops onto the summer festival scene with Shakespeare West, a heady months-long celebration of the Bard. In its inaugural offering, The Tempest, the company plunges headlong into a new outdoor venue and, happily, takes the outside play as an invitation to play outside. With is lively, exploratory staging and focus on the passion of the text, this self-described "Shakespeariment" takes the reflection and wisdom of the playwright's final work and layers on a youthful surge of innovation.

The playing space is a permanent structure in Ann Arbor’s newly restored West Park, with a carefully landscaped marshy expanse separating the band shell from the gently sloping seating area, and a second playing space between (probably used as a dance floor in other applications). Under the direction of Lynch Travis, the two divided planes are envisioned as a massive natural playground, with the actors pushing through thigh-high grasses and climbing atop stones as characters navigate the hostile-seeming, untamed island where banished Prospero (Barton Bund) has orchestrated revenge upon the men who usurped his dukedom a dozen years hence.

That the performers hold the audience’s attention across such an expanse is all the more impressive given that they number four, in total. The new adaptation is arranged such that each actor in the quartet portrays two or three of the primary characters: Bund doubles as Prospero’s scheming brother, for example, and Jamie Weeder has an interesting double turn as the master’s sprightly servant Ariel and primitive slave Caliban, as well as portraying the grief-dazed King of Naples. The different characters appear and change via a combination of competent staging cues and lovely piecemeal costumes by Monika Essen. With no lighting scheme but the sun and no recorded sounds (just a few noisemakers/instruments, with music by Bund and Weeder), what Travis and company accomplish feels like the best kind of theater magic.

Players Jon Ager and Luna Alexander are well and frequently paired. Ager gives an exuberant turn as the buffoonish Trinculo, opposite Alexander’s delusions of grandeur as the inebriated Stephano. The actors appear together in a different capacity as instant lovers Ferdinand and Miranda; although their adoration has plainly been manufactured by the clever Prospero (the girl’s father) and the two are positively green in their ardor, Ager and Alexander uncover earnest sweetness in this young love that extends beyond the well-intentioned manipulation that sparked their connection. Weeder’s Caliban appears as a sort of vengeful satyr, incapable of desires beyond more of what last made him happy and less of what last made him angry. However, her best work is in Ariel’s fleeting interventions: given a magical character that juts in and out, unseen, to influence these highly suggestible subjects, Ariel quickly usurps — and just as quickly abandons — whatever individual Weeder may be inhabiting with astonishing clarity. Finally, the wronged protagonist is here possessed of a simmering, powerful calm; although elderly Prospero is frequently played with world-weary finality, the invigorated Bund (who landed, undeniably young, in the role after some well-publicized casting misfortunes) does no such pretending, instead unearthing a character whose static motivations become surprisingly dynamic as soon as his long-awaited scheme comes to fruition. The unconventional casting is not especially thorny; we don’t have to be old to be set in our ways, and so the character arc is fitting and absorbing without betraying the original text.

Admittedly, this Tempest isn’t aligned to serve as a primer to Shakespeare the wordsmith: the dialogue flows and overlaps organically, and although the company reliably maximizes the band shell’s natural amplification, there are nevertheless moments when staging or spectacle is given precedence over hearing every line. Instead, this production should be lauded for the capering, boisterous entertainment it provides, a reminder of the author’s intended use for his work, free of the perceived self-important stuffiness of the classics. In all, the show — and, one may consequently hope, future Shakespeare West entries — is a fitting companion to a Michigan summer evening, as first-act sunglasses give way to second-act bug spray, and stories find resolution to deepening thrills in the wistfully fading light.


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