The Riot Grrrls Present ‘The Tempest’ at Taffety Punk Theatre Company

A salty sea breeze is in the air this season, at least in DC area theatres. A few weeks ago, Shakespeare Theatre Company closed its phantasmagoric production of The Tempest, directed by Ethan McSweeny and starring Geraint Wyn Davies as Prospero (see my interview with the cast and director here, and the review here). On the other side of the Potomac, the touring Aquila Theatre dished up their visually provocative version of the play at the George Mason Center for the Arts (see the review here). Now, as the winter doldrums are leading many Washingtonians to yearn for the tropical isle that is its setting, The Tempest has returned again, this time in all-female form, as the newest installment of the Riot Grrrls series at Taffety Punk Theatre Company.

Teresa Spencer (Ferdinand) and Amanda Forstrom  (Miranda) in the Riot Grrrls 'The Tempest.' Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Teresa Spencer (Ferdinand) and Amanda Forstrom (Miranda) . Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The Riot Grrrls Project was begun by Taffety Punk in 2008 created, in part, to offer an alternative to the dearth of female roles in The Bard’s canon. This simple yet ingenious idea (wait, what if we just give all the parts to girls?) is a boon for actors, certainly, who may never otherwise get the chance to play Hamlet or Romeo. But it is also a refreshing reinterpretation for audiences, and The Tempest, directed by Taffety veteran Lise Bruneau, is no exception. It sparkles with all the magic, romance, and humor that the play requires. There is a light heartedness and a genuine joy that springs, in part, from the sheer gender bending fun of it all (look, mom! I’m playing Sebastian and I’m a girl!). Contributing to the coruscating atmosphere is the scenic design by Jessica Moretti, with the audience arranged in clusters around the space. Although this swooning staging sometimes comes with a strained neck, its novelty is admirable. A strong light design by Brittany Diliberto, and a gorgeous string score by Amy Domingues, finishes off the atmosphere with iridescent polish.

Beyond the innovative archipelago-style staging, the performances in The Tempest are uniformly brilliant. Isabelle Anderson, as the magician Prospero, is a powerhouse from beginning to end. Natural but expressive, powerful but nuanced, Anderson is a living testament to the reason why Riot Grrrls should never go away. Watching her captivate the space, I thought to myself, this actor was born to play Prospero. But of course, she wasn’t… until of course Taffety Punk stepped in.

Isabelle Anderson (Prospero). Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Isabelle Anderson (Prospero). Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Ms. Anderson’s is not the only good performance in the show, however. Amanda Forstrom represents both ends of the gender expression spectrum, first as the picture of innocent femininity, Miranda, and then as the paragon of clownish masculinity as Trinculo. Also pulling double duty is Tonya Beckman, who plays a sparkly, caffeinated Ariel, as well as a grumbling Caliban. Teresa Spencer is a shockingly good Ferdinand (and Sebastian), her mannerisms so naturally boyish, her romance with Miranda seemed positively heterosexual..

Generally speaking, The Tempest is a very solid production, and some moments, especially those provided by Ms. Prospero, are breathtaking. Personally, however, I could have used some more punk in this Taffety Punk show. It is an all-female cast, which, perhaps, is already seen as a long walk down a thinning limb. But one can’t help but wonder the implications of doing an all-female version of The Tempest? Not just one where women play men, but where women play women – where instead of simple dress up, actual female characters are inserted into the fabric of Shakespeare’s text. There are few bad choices made in The Tempest, neither by the actors nor director Lise Bruneau. But then again, there is not much that extends beyond what can’t be called anything other than safe: The requisite fishing nets are hung, the set is painted in blue and gold spirals, and Caliban is a misformed monster. Given the prodigious ability and proven artistic courage of Taffety Punk, the whole thing seemed rather vanilla. But then again, I like vanilla ice cream, and I liked this show. Classical theatre remains the rule, rather than the exception, in DC theatre. Initiatives like the Riot Grrrls keep it interesting, and give everyone a seat at the table. That is enough, for now, to set it apart, and make it a must-see this February.

Esther Williamson (Antonio). Photo by Marcus Kyd.
Esther Williamson (Antonio). Photo by Marcus Kyd.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with one ten-minute intermission.

The Tempest plays through February 28, 2015 at Taffety Punk Theatre Company, performing at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Street, SE, in Washington, D.C. Tickets may be purchased at the door or online.

RATING: FOUR-AND-A-HALF-STARS8.gif