Darko Tresnjak is hanging upside down, swinging on a 25-foot stretch of red fabric at Hartford Stage.
It's not that tech rehearsals for Shakespeare's"The Tempest"have pushed the theater's artistic director over the edge. After he watched Joshua Dean swing and sway as a storm-tossed sailor for the show's opening scene the athletic activity proves irresistible for Tresnjak, 46, who performed acrobatic feats in his performing youth.
Moves of angst and lyricism personified in Dean's gymnastics are reflected throughout Tresnjak's first Shakespeare production at the theater. The show is in previews and opens to the press on Wednesday.
"The Tempest" — arguably the Bard's last play — is often chosen by artistic directors as a swan song at the end of their tenure. But Tresnjak, who took over the theater last fall, decided he wanted this play to introduce Hartford audiences to his approach to the Shakespeare canon. He also wanted some "weight" after a different kind of sorcery he staged this spring in a production of the bewitching comedy "Bell, Book and Candle."
"[Director] Jack 'Brien referred to 'The Tempest' as a rite of passage because it's a Shakespeare play that shakes you up," says Tresnjak during a break in rehearsals at the theater. "Even if you've done many of his plays, you will find the possibilities in this play are infinite."
As one of the leading directors of Shakespeare, Tresnjak's credits includes 21 productions of 14 of his works. He staged them at Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, where he was artistic director of its Shakespeare festival, at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada and at off-Broadway's Theatre for a New Audience. His experience with Shakespeare's work is one of the reasons he was hired at Hartford Stage last year. His goal is to produce a work by the Bard every season in Hartford.
Tresnjak mulled over many approaches to the widely interpretive work. Many directors center the play with a "colonialism" theme. ("I think that card has been played out, to tell you the truth.") Others productions re-gendered Prospero as "Prospera." (Helen Mirren played the lead in Julie Taymor's 2010 film. Olympia Dukakis will star in the show this summer at Shakespeare & Company in the Massachusetts Berkshires.)
Set on a remote island, Prospero, the banished Duke of Milan, strategizes to have his daughter return to her rightful place. Using his skills of sorcery and assisted by a mischievous sprite named Ariel, Prospero whips up a storm that brings a ship carrying his usurping brother Antonio and the complicit Alonso, King of Naples, to the isle's shores. There Antonio's true nature is revealed and the king's son, Ferdinand, falls in love with Prospero's daughter, Miranda.
That leads to the ultimate choice Prospero has to make at the play's end: Whether he has his revenge or grants forgiveness.
Tresnjak was walking down the street with Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director of off-Broadway's Theatre for a New Audience, when his friend said about the play, "You know it's ultimately about art."
With that statement Tresnjak found his way into this production.
"I feel everything in the play to refers to art, theater and life more than any Shakespeare play," he says. "It's just a great play because it ties into the life of an artistic director. The fact that art can benevolent and healing but that it can also be destructive. I found myself thinking about the play during finance committee meetings and when we were planning the gala.
"It's also about finding faith in pursuing something that's completely ephemeral. We spend so much time working on what we do here, to create a moment on stage that is fleeting. It is not a book or a painting or a movie. It goes away when the run is over. This play is the ultimate act of faith in the art of theater."
After determining the theme of the production, Tresnjak started thinking about the visuals for the show and enlisted his "Bell, Book and Candle" designers: Alexander Dodge for sets and Fabio Toblini for costumes. Music, dance, masks, aerial work and puppetry enhance the magic.
"Even more than 'Midsummer [Night's Dream']," says Tresnjak, " 'The Tempest' is set in an entirely imaginary landscape."
But it's one with little clarity in the text regarding the island.
Tresnjak describes the play's beginning when the shipwrecked nobles have contrasting opinions of where they find themselves. "Gonzalo says the grass is beautiful and the air is fresh. But Antonio says, 'What are you talking about? It's a horrible smell and the grass looks like weeds.' So who's right?' That plays itself out throughout the work. Every single piece of practical information is contradicted and that said to me that a realistic treatment of the play was not advisable. Ultimately it has to do to a mind-set the people bring to the island."
And the look of the island on stage?
It's an abstract world, he says. "I feel that the stage is Prospero's mind exposed. Prospero is not always on stage but you feel, as things unfold, that he's watching from somewhere every single moment, sort of like the Witch in 'The Wizard of Oz' as she looks into her crystal ball
"He has complete control over the storm that causes the shipwreck. He has complete control over the island. The only thing he doesn't have control over is himself. He's not always in check over his own emotions and he has quite a few mood swings.
Tresnjak cast the play himself rather than using a New York agent. He chose actors he knew from all over North America "who do this kind of work and care deeply about it. There are people who have devoted their lives to the classics."
Tresnjak decided he found his Prospero after he saw Daniel Davis— most known by many audiences as Niles the Butler in six seasons of TV's"The Nanny" — in an off-Broadway production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" with Diane Wiest at Classic Stage.
"I started to quiver when I saw that performance," says Tresnjak, "and my head was turning sideways, like when you're assessing someone through your own personal and selfish reasons. His ear is a finely tuned precision instrument for Shakespeare so Prospero's contradictions come to him easily."
THE TEMPEST is in previews at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St. The press opening is Wednesday, May 16. The show runs through June 10. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. and selected matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Tickets are $26.50 to $90.50, not including fees. Information:860-527-5151 and http://www.hartfordstage.org.
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