FORT WORTH Over the years, Lake Simons has adapted important works of literature in her minimal, physical theater productions that begin in, or make their way from, New York to her parents Johnny and Diane’s Hip Pocket Theatre. From The Little Prince to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, text and dialogue take a backseat to visual storytelling as the performers manipulate objects (sometimes traditional puppets, but often not) to convey the basic ideas of the narrative.
Even with an epic, text-intensive work like Melville’s Moby-Dick (seen at HPT last year), the story is boiled down to the bare essentials and the performance techniques become the vehicle for the storytelling.
That creates a dilemma when adapting a work by one of the most important writers in the English language, Shakespeare, who not only helped shape the way we speak but who wrote such poetic language — even when he composed in prose.
Lake Simons’ latest is A Tempest, taken from Willy Shakes’ The Tempest. As is typical in her work, it’s visually arresting, as spectacle is replaced with lithe performers, almost floating across the space, and objects manipulated and transformed into those elements that larger Shakespeare productions can suggest best with sound and lighting, such as the opening storm.
But of course, Shakespeare without his spoken language is not quite Shakespeare, and although Simons has incorporated some of the lines into this work, including some of the best-known (“What have we here/A man or a fish?”), it is ultimately unsatisfying.
Not that there aren’t a lot of interesting aspects of Simons’ version, which, it should be pointed out, has the title A Tempest, with a much different article in front of the noun to suggest that this is merely a version of the play. It’s not the version we know so well.
It begins with a relatively lengthy sequence of the cast rolling out a large, patchwork piece of cloth to show the land of Milan before the storm hits. The members bring out little trees and houses, carefully placing them on the landscape. Then the tempest hits (cleverly done with twirling ropes anchored by a weight) and the trees and houses are upturned.
We see the ship that brings Prospero (Gary Cunningham) and his daughter Miranda (Elysia Worcester, with the character also portrayed by a puppet) to the island, and their adoption of Caliban (Jeff Stanfield, with a fabulously tall hat) into servitude, with the help of the precocious spirit Ariel (Frieda Austin).
The other Italians arrive, and they are decidedly more contemporary, according to their costumes (by Marie Harbour): Alonzo (Michael Joe Goggans); Ferdinand (Allen Dean); the Fool, who is typically known as Trinculo (Clyde Berry, dressed as a traditional French harlequin fool); and Gonzala, gender-switched from Gonzalo (JoAnn Gracey).
An original score by Simons collaborator John Dyer (recorded, not played live) adds mood and humor.
It’s indeed a strange world, and ultimately, as it runs just over an hour, it is a series of scenes from the source material. When the Bard’s text is spoken, it’s lacking delicacy or nuance, and feels disjointed; but it’s clear that the emphasis is with the nonspoken, visual storytelling.
“Can you remember a time before we came here?” Prospero asks early on. After A Tempest, you won’t forget any previous versions of Shakespeare’s play that you’ve seen, but at least you’ll have another version in the memory bank.