By Mara Certic
As August approaches at Mulford Farm, so do spirits, shipwrecks and storms. The Hamptons International Theater Festival will bring 12 outdoor performances of “The Tempest” to the East Hampton Village site.
“It’s a Herculean task to do this,” said artistic director Josh Perl. “But we’re all really passionate about Shakespeare.”
Mr. Perl chose “The Tempest” for several different reasons. Mainly, he said, because of its accessibility to children. Traditionally deemed a tragicomedy, “The Tempest” distinguishes itself from Shakespearean tragedies in distinct ways, the most obvious of which is that nobody dies.
The entire play takes place on a fictional island. It begins with a storm, which the audience later finds out had been started by a spirit, Ariel, at the behest of Prospero—the former duke of Milan whose brother had left him and his daughter Miranda for dead on a raft at sea many years before.
The great tempest strikes a ship carrying his brother, Antonio and his family, as Prospero hopes to make things right and enact his revenge. As with Shakespearean comedies, confusion and misunderstandings ensue throughout the play.
The only challenge of staging the play outdoors, according to Mr. Perl, is the opening thunderstorm during the daytime. But he decided to remedy that problem and another at the same time.
“In choosing ‘The Tempest’ I thought how can we make this show more accessible to kids?” Mr. Perl said during a phone interview on Friday. “How come everything seems so serious?” he asked himself about other stagings of the play.
Mr. Perl decided to interest his younger audience was to include children in his cast. “So we’re partnering up with CMEE,” he said of the Children’s Museum of the East End. The children will open the show; each will get a piece of a costume (a pirate patch or tattoo, perhaps) and will speak a few lines before the spirits help them create the opening storm.
“We have a really professional show,” Mr. Perl said, adding that having the children’s participation is “just perfect.”
“We’re getting kids to do what they’re good at and that is the spirit of Shakespeare,” he said.
In order to lighten the mood of the play and continue to entertain children, Mr. Perl also decided to use songs, playfulness and puckishness, he said. “I had thought that I wanted to have the spirits be very flamboyant, almost like drag queens,” he said. “They’re singing, they’re on stage a lot reacting to what’s happening,” he said, adding that at one point the spirits sing “On the island, the magic island, the spirits awake tonight” to the tune of the 1961 Tokens hit, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
Mr. Perl then decided that gender-reversal might have other positive effects, and so he decided to explore that. “There’s really only one female role in “The Tempest,” which is just unfair,” he said.
“I really wanted a female Prospero. We live in an age where there are women CEOs and women in charge of all sorts of things,” he added, noting that with the exception of Queen Elizabeth I, this was hardly the case in Shakespearean England.
So Prospero became Prospera, Antonio turned into Antonia, and faithful counselor Gonzalo had a sex change too. “I just noticed how the play’s gender politics center has shifted from being about this noble, magician authority figure into being more about a woman who may have deserved to be driven out of the dukedom because of her focus on magic,” he said.
“Apart from having to change the occasional pronoun though, there’s nothing that’s textually different,” said Mr. Perl.
“It’s a really nice dimension and it’s working really well,” said Molly McKenna, who grew up in Sag Harbor and still has a base here. Ms. McKenna, who has worked with Mr. Perl for years, had not thought that there would be a part for her. “I was just going to be cheering him on,” she said.
“And then he suggested that I play the role of Gonzalo, usually played by a man.”
“It makes complete sense,” said Ms. McKenna. “She is a very caring and sincere person who is a counselor to the King of Naples. It makes sense that she’s a woman. She aided and abetted Prospero’s escape.”
The non-profit theater company is paying all 18 members of the cast, Mr. Perl said. And the set designers, stagehands, lighting designers, assistants, directors, and so on.
“Everyone gets paid, but no one gets paid enough,” said Mr. Perl, who has had to fundraise in order to put on this show. “We had to house four actors out here for eight weeks. We were lucky that friends were nice to us.”
Some money has been raised, but more is required. For more information or to donate, visit hitfest.org/the-tempest. Mulford Farm is located at 10 James Lane in East Hampton.
“The Tempest” will run Wednesdays through Sundays from August 6 through August 24. Showtime is 6 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for students, and free to children under 10. Tickets are $17.50 for seniors at the door only.