What’s the most difficult part about doing a Shakespeare play? Ask any member of the cast of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s upcoming production of “The Tempest” and you’ll likely get the same answer: the language.
“Really understanding the text and having a command of it is probably the biggest thing,” says Diana Taggart, who plays the ill-behaved spirit Ariel.
Taggart and her Laurel Mill cast mates open this weekend under the direction of Joshua McKerrow. “The Tempest” is Shakespeare’s second-shortest play and tells the story of Prospero, Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda.The two have spent 12 years on an island, banished by Prospero’s brother, Alonso. At Prospero’s request, Ariel casts a spell and raises a tempest, causing a ship carrying Alonso and his men to come ashore on the island.
The play is considered a comedy, albeit a serious one.
Before the actors from Laurel Mill could even think about getting into character, or how they would manage to create a vicious storm with sky-high swells on stage, they first had to decode Shakespeare.
“The first thing you have to do is approach the text and understand everything that’s going on,” says Kat McKerrow, Joshua’s wife and the actor playing Prospero. “In other plays, the most important things are the acting, the tone and the set. ... The most important thing in a Shakespeare production is the text.”
This is the first Laurel Mill Playhouse production for both Kat and Joshua, although it’s not their first time working together. During July and August, the husband-and-wife duo did a production of “Romeo and Juliet” at the Reisterstown Theatre Project. Joshua directed and Kat played the part of the nurse.
While Shakespeare’s language may be difficult to decipher, Joshua says that’s no reason to take liberties with the text.
“It’s very important to keep the text as is,” he says. “You can’t really take it upon yourself to change it.”
“You can’t really fudge Shakespeare,” adds Penny Martin, a longtime actor, playwright and director with Laurel Mill. “And people are more likely to slap you if you do.”
Martin, who plays Alonso, also wrote original music for the play and is responsible for some of the sound effects. She says Laurel Mill’s production is kept “pretty close” to the bard’s own words. She says Joshua chose not to change pronouns in the play, even in cases where a male is playing a female role or vice-versa, for authenticity purposes.
While remaining true to the language in “The Tempest” is important to Joshua, he says there is room for interpretation.
“You could play it as a broad comedy, a horror show and make it eerie ... you could make it very serious, a psychological story,” Joshua says. “You can interpret it in a lot of different ways and still remain absolutely faithful to the text.”
The director says Laurel Mill is presenting the play as a “light-hearted tragedy” in which Prospero seeks retribution for his brother’s wrongs.
Joshua says he’s depending on his actors’ understanding of the text and their talent to bring the story to life on stage.
“With everyone saying their lines correctly, it’s hard to destroy,” Joshua says. “If you let lines and text breathe, I think it can’t help but come to life.”
As for the visuals, including the tempest, Joshua says he’s depending on Martin’s ingenuity and a little bit of his own professional experience as a photojournalist for The Capital newspaper in Annapolis.
“I think we’ll be able to be great with Penny’s music and sound effects,” Joshua says. “I think a lot about story and meaning behind images. ... I can visualize a lot of different possibilities and then make a decision pretty quickly about what option we’re going to go with.”