SALT LAKE CITY — The Grassroots Shakespeare Company has been a travelling theater company since 2009. Their approach to Shakespeare is completely different from your typical theatre-going experience. Among the differences are no director or costume designer, little rehearsal time so the show never becomes rote, and most performances are done in the light of day, depending on the sun for their lighting. These elements combine to create a memorable performance.
One current Grassroots production is The Tempest, is a work by Shakespeare depicting two sets of people. The first group is made up of the King of Naples, his son Ferdinand, and several servants. The second includes the main character, Prospero, and his daughter Miranda. Much could be said about the plot of a show this detailed, but there are plenty of places to read about that. Suffice it to say, the King’s group is shipwrecked on the same island that Prospero and his daughter have been marooned on for years, all to Prospero’s design.
The opening scene depicts the shipwreck, and it was handled creatively. With a ships helm held in midair, and fabric swatches sewn together to create a wave effect. The scene was interesting and engaging, including live music that unfortunately was loud enough to drown the sound from our actors. It seemed to only be an issue within this scene, but detracted from the experience.
When the audience first sees Prospero (played by Jason Sullivan), there was an immediate change in atmosphere as the talented actor portraying him commanded presence and respect. This was a common theme throughout the performance, as any scene involving the main character was riveting.
Throughout the show there were some obvious nods to modern times, things like using Cheez-its to lure Ferdinand (played by Carter Walker) in the right direction, and the King of Naples (Alonso, Ferdinand’s father, played by Levi Brown) being adorned with the Infinity Gauntlet from the Marvel universe. These things at first were distracting, but as the night continued, it became clear that the group preferred a more abstract and playful approach to a playwright whose work is generally taken very seriously. If audience members can be open to the idea that Shakespeare could be playful, The Tempest is a pleasant experience.
Noteworthy performances did not include only Sullivan, but Ardon Smith (as Antonio and Stephano) and Steven Pond (as Sebastian and Trinculo) as well. These men each had a character change during the play. This is sometimes a difficult aspect of non-Equity productions in Utah, where often companies do not have enough men to fill all the written parts. In The Tempest, this doubling of roles was a success in its execution. Their characters were clearly different characters in mannerisms, costume, and voice, lending to an impressive performance on their part.
Paris Abigail Moore‘s performance of Miranda was simplistic in nature, fitting for the young girl raised away from the world with only her father and a witches son as company. The good nature of the character was clear and endearing as she developed feelings for Ferdinand and used her relationship with him to attempt to learn of the outside world. Walker played Ferdinand in a similar fashion, seeming to be a boy struck with love and little else. For the circumstances, it was an effective choice, truly selling the idea of love at first sight and his devotion to Miranda. The two worked together in harmony, creating loving and peaceful scenes.
Grassroots advertises an interactive experience for their patrons, and the show was indeed interactive. There was encouragement regularly to answer questions being asked by the players, or to react openly to how they felt about something that had transpired. This adds an air of surprise to the performance, never knowing what might happen or how audiences will react. In this particular performance, Triculo was sent away by a comrade and came out into the audience, sharing in the picnic of a family watching the show. This effect was funny and captivating, making the audience feel part of the show.
The unusual approach of the Grassroots Company may not be for everyone, but it cannot be denied that the company puts on interesting and unique shows. The Tempest was no exception. With the combination of self-costuming, no formal direction, and the playful fun of the players, this performance of The Tempest was unforgettable. So if you enjoy a good story, strong characters, and just a touch of mayhem, visit the next Grassroots Shakespeare Company performance near you and enjoy the show.