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NC Shakespeare fest presents The Tempest

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It’s 6:30 PM. I’m rushing down Highway 68 on my way from Summerfield to downtown High Point, not an advisable scenario for someone driving a 1984 Dodge Ram. The old truck (Red Auerbach, by name) is pitching a fit; he’s coughing and wheezing and screaming how he hasn’t hit such a clip since the Reagan administration. I’m not unsympathetic to his geriatric pleas: I generally slow him to 35 mph at the first signs of grumbling. Tonight, however, I simply give him more gas, laughing at the irony of such an undignified, troglodytic vehicle scrambling to make a 7:30 production of Shakespeare.

To take a look at me — at my loosened tie, my beat up truck, my four-day facial hair. It’s safe to say I don’t fit the mold of your everyday, cultured theater-goer. I am a book nerd, a writer, an English teacher, but, alas, even though I’ve been to a handful of plays, I’ve never considered myself a “theater person.” This will all change tonight, though, as I will, because of the quality of tonight’s performance — because of the time and effort and money and dedication the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival has pumped into its cultural mission over the past year — I will leave the theater anxious to take in more theater.

But I get ahead of myself. A couple months ago I shot a note to the editor of YES! Weekly — you know, the dashing fellow featured in the column at the back of this paper — suggesting I cover the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival’s upcoming production of The Tempest at the High Point Theater. It seemed, two months ago, like a good idea.

Well, then I started teaching English at a local public high school.

While preparing for a Sept. 18 wedding. Followed by a honeymoon in Jamaica. Before I knew it, July had become August which had become September and, magically, last week — now married and tanned and buried under a week’s backlog of papers to grade — I received an e-mail from Brian Clarey letting me know that the deadline for my Shakespeare article was in a couple days. Which would have been no sweat, save for one problem: I hadn’t yet seen the play.

Hence my currently rushing down Highway 68 in my old truck.

Crossing over Skeetclub, I swoop by our apartment to pick up my wife, April. Hungry, we hustle to a drive-thru to scarf down a couple burgers, finishing just in time to race through downtown High Point (like the cruisers of weekends past) and make it to our seats in the High Point Theater. As the lights dim, I, being a High Point native, reflect on the million times I’ve sat in this theater: school field trips, high school graduations, political speeches, my sister’s beauty pageants. And, as the curtain rises, it registers to me as a point of pride that the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival should call this place home.

The Tempest begins, much as its title would suggest, with a storm. Widely believed to be Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest is a story imbued with the conventions of magic and mystery and illusion.

The story centers on Prospero, the former Duke of Milan who had, some 15 years earlier, been banished to sea — with only his magic books and his daughter — after being betrayed by his brother. Set on a remote island and featuring a patriarch capable of wielding magic, the story is an interesting tale of betrayal and revenge and forgiveness: Think Swiss Family Robinson meets Survivor meets Charmed meets Chaucer.

The first two acts prove both gripping and humorous, the actors clearly showing themselves to be seasoned professionals. In fact, the highlight of the entire production leads right into intermission, as the drunken

Stephano, played by Graham Smith, dazzles the crowd with his inane, inebriated bumbling.

At the break, my wife and I take the opportunity to grab a snack and Coke, both of us shocked when the woman takes our 20 and passes back $17: It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a concession stand where a drink and candy bar don’t induce sticker shock.

“You know,” I hear the woman seated in front of me saying to her husband, “this really isn’t so bad. Even if I don’t know what the hell they are saying.”

Intermission has just ended, the play is about to resume, and I can’t help but snicker at the woman’s comment. I’m currently teaching Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in my 10 th grade classes, and earlier today I had a student tell me the play may as well be written in Arabic.

Both the woman and my student are right, of course: Unless one spends much time reading Shakespeare, it is hard to understand what he’s saying. What strikes me most about this woman’s comment, though — as well as what I hope to impress upon my students — is that, once one gets past the difficulty of the language, there is a certain richness to Shakespeare. And it is much to NCSF’s credit that this woman has picked up on this.

Time goes on and Prospero’s plan for vengeance begins to unfold. Ultimately, the story takes a touching turn, ending in joy and reconciliation instead of death and bloodshed.

Prospero claims he is throwing his magic books into the sea — some scholars claim this was Shakespeare’s way of saying he was putting down his pen — and at the very end of the play, Prospero, now void of magic, tells the audience he can only be freed through its applause. To which, of course, we all clap like mad.

It really is a beautiful play. What’s more, though, is how professionally delivered was NCSF’s version.

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In mid-June of this year, the Greensboro News and Record reported that the NCSF had just received a $425,000 donation from the High Point Community Foundation. Along with a $500,000 gift from Jim Millis Jr. and his wife Debbie, and $75,000 from David Hayworth, the foundation suddenly freed itself of a $1.2 million bank loan taken out in 2005, allowing it to focus its financial resources on the productions themselves.

cover2.jpg (L-R) Prospero, Ariel and Miranda from The Tempest.

The additional money is evident in the quality of the lighting and sound as well as in the set design. In the opening storm sequence alone it becomes clear how much has been invested — both financially and artistically — in trying to make this program a success. Meanwhile, as I mentioned earlier, the caliber of the actors is wonderful, another perk that doesn’t come cheap.

Included in The Tempest’s playbill is a note from Jim and Debbie Millis who, along with their $500,000 donation to NCSF, also gave $250,000 toward producing The Tempest and NCSF’s next project, A Christmas Carol. In their note, they express their hope at cultivating a thriving arts culture in our community, saying the NCSF will enrich the lives of thousands of local students and citizens. The note ends with a plea to the audience, asking us to consider what we might do to help invest in the NC Shakespeare Festival’s dream.

It is hard not to draw parallels between Prospero’s request for our applause and the festival’s request for our consideration: Both are, quite literally, asking us to free them so as to live fuller lives. Just as Prospero needs our approval to send him home to Milan, so does the festival need our help to grow the local arts culture into something larger and more vibrant.

Well, sign me up. As the curtain closes on this year’s production of The Tempest, I clap; not just for Prospero, but for the NC Shakespeare Festival and its vision for the future. For our part, my wife and I will certainly be at NCSF’s December’s showing of A Christmas Carol. And if she plays her cards right, I might even shell out the three bucks to buy her a drink and some popcorn at the intermission.

NCSF’s annual production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the ultimate Family Theatre experience, providing wholesome, imaginative entertainment for the entire family. Enjoy a local performance with your family this holiday season.

Showing Dec 3-19 at the High Point Theatre.220 E. Commerce Ave. High Point, NC 27262 336.887.3001 ncshakes.org

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