‘The Tempest’ Challenges Gender Roles

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Between overcast afternoon skies and flash flood warnings on Wednesday, August 13, Joshua Perl—director of HITFest’s “The Tempest”—worried Long Island’s own tempest threatened to cancel that evening’s performance at Mulford Farm in East Hampton.

Instead, the night cleared and the Shakespearean play went off without a hitch.

Written in the early 17th century, “The Tempest” follows the story of Prospero, the ousted Duke of Milan, who plots to restore his daughter, Miranda, to her rightful place. He lures his brother, Antonio, and the complicit King Alonso of Naples to a remote island—where the father-daughter team has been banished for 12 years. There, Prospero’s redemption begins.

Except, this time, Prospero is Prospera, acted by Corey Tazmania—who opens the play with a horde of mariners, emerging from a black tarp representing the storm she conjured, paired against a whimsical, hand-painted mountain scene and set designed by Peter-Tolin Baker, with an assist from head carpenter and painter James Kelly Caldwell.

The stage is modest, and the talented troupe of 18 actors spend most of their time off it, running across the grassy foreground, acting out plotlines oozing with revenge, forgiveness and a little bit of romance.

Mr. Perl’s progressive, and inspired, decision to play gender musical chairs—a directorial call he also employed during the troupe’s 2012 outdoor production of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” in Bridgehampton—re-imagines the way traditional Shakespearean plays were performed in the Elizabethan era, when men dominated theater.

Ms. Tazmania’s portrayal of Prospera, albeit masculine in her aggressive control of the stage, houses a maternal nuance as she holds her daughter—acted by Michelle Girolami—in her arms and, later, praises Ariel, Prospera’s spirit, played by Kathryn Lerner, with gentle caressing.

Similarly, the sibling rivalry between sisters Prospera and Antonia—the latter a female representation of Antonio, acted by Licia James Zegar—alters the typical masculine competition audiences familiar with the play have seen in the past. Not bound by masculine limitations, Antonia is also able to employ her sexuality to convince Sebastian, played by Matthew O’Connor, to conspire against their fellow shipwrecked comrades, Gonzala and Alonso—portrayed by Molly McKenna and J.B. Alexander, respectively—murder them and take the Naples throne for themselves.

Wednesday night’s performance drew in a cozy audience of 32, who were treated to an engaging performance that directly interacted with the crowd. The actors often ran among the lawn chairs, blankets and outdoor picnics. Some viewers were even pulled onto the grassy stage to dance with the spirits. This reviewer was not, parked happily in the grass.

Other deliberate changes to Shakespeare’s masterpiece are the modern musical choices, including “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” sung by the spirits—Bethany Dellapolla, L’aura Vakar, Rae LaBorne, Emily Selyukova, Brent White and Christine Treuhold. Shakespeare may have been proud, considering the playwright also employed music to break up the dialogue.

“In Shakespeare’s day, he used tunes of the day,” Mr. Perl explained to audience member Carolyn Zenk. “And that’s just what we’re doing.”

“We’re not used to the language,” Ms. Zenk remarked, “but when you see it acted and its context, it’s like I know what they’re talking about.”

“That’s one of the things we strive for,” Mr. Perl said. “To not make it ‘mysterious’ Shakespeare.”

Bottom line: This light, fun adaptation is for everyone—just don’t forget to bring bug spray and a picnic.

HITFest will stage “The Tempest” Wednesday, August 20, through Sunday, August 24, at 7 p.m. at Mulford Farm in East Hampton. Tickets are $20, $17.50 for seniors, $10 for teenagers and free for children under age 10. Reservations are required. For more information, call (516) 725-5205 or visit hitfest.org.

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