For readers familiar with William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,” you may remember the story of Prospero, a magician and former duke of Milan, who uses magical powers (channeled through a magic staff) to force his brother, Antonio, to join him and his daughter on the deserted island where they have been exiled.
It’s a story of both whimsy and revenge – Antonio had replaced Prospero as Milan’s ruler, after Prospero neglected his duties to spend time lost in his book collection.
Shakespeare in Detroit stays faithful to that story in its production of the play, but the theater company sets it in a more contemporary time period and bathes it in a music genre that was born here: techno.
Shakespeare in Detroit’s “The Tempest” premieres Friday, Aug. 11, at Campus Martius Park. The play is set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with Prospero (played by Jonathan West) trading in his magical staff for records and turntables. Ann Arbor-based DJ Skoob E will play music from the era throughout the show and intermission will feature a 20-minute dance party complete with a contest.
The performances are part of Shakespeare in Detroit’s Classical Theatre Festival, which will also include a youth production of “Macbeth.”
“The Tempest” will run until Sunday, Aug. 13, and then Aug. 18-20. All performances will start at 7:30 p.m. Performances for “Macbeth” will begin at 2 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Campus Martius.
Shakespeare in Detroit founder and “The Tempest” director Sam White said this version of “The Tempest” was inspired by the 80s WGPR-TV program, “The New Dance Show,” and Juan Atkins, who is considered the father of Detroit techno.
“We wanted to create a celebratory show for Shakespeare in Detroit in its 10th season and so, it was nice to be able to fuse the magic of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” with the magic of Detroit’s history with techno music and dance,” she said. “For the most part, we keep the story as it is, but create some more synergy that’s specific to the city itself.”
Bringing Shakespeare to life
White founded Shakespeare in Detroit in 2013 as a way to make the playwright’s works accessible to Detroiters. She was seeing several Shakespeare productions in the suburbs, but nothing in the city proper.
On Aug. 14, 2013, the company debuted with a production of “Othello,” at Grand Circus Park, four weeks after Detroit filed bankruptcy.
“We had the audacity to show up and do Shakespeare’s tragedy, and 500 people came out,” White said.
The company has since put on productions like “Hamlet,” “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Much Ado Para Nada,” a Spanglish version of “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Dennis Kleinsmith has been with Shakespeare in Detroit from the beginning. The veteran actor played antagonist Iago in “Othello” and is back in “The Tempest” as Caliban, Prospero’s servant who happens to be a monster.
“I plot with two of the castaways to try to kill Prospero but of course, our plots go comically wrong,” Kleinsmith said.
He said playing Caliban is exhausting because he has to incorporate a range of emotions, from love, grief, anger, to pure viciousness. The character is known as an antagonist, but White said there’s no saints or sinners in Shakespeare’s plays.
“Good or bad is relative; it depends on who you ask,” she said.
Kleinsmith, a Wayne State University graduate and Lathrup Village resident, said performing Shakespeare is his first love. While he’s also done TV and film work, he said those jobs haven’t been as artistically satisfying as being on the stage.
“As a trained actor, theater gratifies you and there’s nothing like it,” Kleinsmith said. “There’s nothing like finishing a show you’ve spent the past two hours getting ready for and performing, sweating through all your clothes. But that moment when 500 or more people all applaud simultaneously, that’s better than any paycheck.
“Well almost,” he added with a laugh.
Also part of the cast is 18-year-old Arise Rock, who plays a spirit named Ariel. She’s also a servant for Prospero, but their relationship differs from the one with Caliban because Prospero uses Ariel to perform his magic, Rock said. The Detroiter said she’s excited to play Ariel because they both share a passion for life.
“While the spirit might not feel emotions in the same way or capacity as humans, Ariel is constantly excited and impressed with themselves and loves whatever it is they put their mind to,” Rock said. “And personally as an actor, I want to feel that way about the work that I do.”
Rock began performing in theater at the age of four and was a part of Shakespeare in Detroit’s youth conservatory. When she was 14, she starred as Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Sam was my director and I fell in love with Shakespeare,” she said. “The words, the language, the poetry of it all and the visuals that it provides. And even though a lot of teenagers, even myself, were a bit overwhelmed with the language …the audiences still understand it because the themes are the same, like love, forgiveness, hatred. Those are things everybody feels naturally anyway. Anybody can connect to Shakespeare.”
As Shakespeare in Detroit celebrates its 10th anniversary, White hopes that Detroit will continue to need the type of theater the company provides.
“I hope that’s our legacy; that we always show up when the city needs us and that equity, diversity and inclusion are not a mission statement for us,” she said. “We were doing it long before 2020 and we’ll do it long after. And I hope people understand and see that Shakespeare in Detroit is by and for the people.”