Shakespeare was theater for the people, and no one in modern times is more associated with that concept than Joseph Papp. In 1957, Papp’s Mobile Theater sought to make Shakespeare accessible to all, providing free productions of these timeless pieces and demonstrating their power and relevance for contemporary audiences. That, of course, became the New York Shakespeare Festival and today the Public Theater.
Papp’s vision of bringing free Shakespeare to the city lives on in the Public’s Mobile Unit that takes Shakespeare throughout the city to prisons, community centers, homeless shelters, and more before setting down at the Public for, as in the case of “The Tempest,” a just-completed, several-week run where tickets were given away free.
The plays are cut to 90 minutes and performed on a bare floor with props and comparatively simple costumes. In all the Mobile Unit productions I’ve seen, the language and story shine through with clarity and excitement. “Henry V,” “Richard III,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and this season’s “The Tempest” become fully, if simply, realized productions, giving audiences new to Shakespeare — and die-hard fans — an immersive, often revelatory take on the plays.
With “The Tempest,” director Laurie Woolery tamed the text to emphasize the romance and comedy of the piece. With a female Prospero, the spellbinding Myra Lucretia Taylor, the focus of the play was not on revenge for Prospero’s dukedom being usurped but rather on restoring the rightful order of the world. It’s a subtle change, but one that’s effective in questioning how power structures might be altered were a woman at the head.
Prospero has raised a storm that has shipwrecked all her old enemies on the island, where her goal is to restore the status quo ante and regain her dukedom. This probing of matriarchal power is complemented by director Woolery’s take on Caliban, a monstrous demi-demon who was enslaved when the exiled Prospero took up residence on his island. While not explicitly stated, Caliban’s resentment at being overpowered by a woman is palpable as he tries to foment a revolution and place the fools Trinculo and Stephano in charge, a plot that ultimately collapses due to their drunken incompetence.
Meanwhile, the story of Prospero’s daughter and her love of Ferdinand, the first man she has ever seen, unfolds as Ferdinand must prove to Prospero he is worthy of such a gem as Miranda. All is ultimately made right, Prospero is restored to her rightful place, and, as is common, everything ends in a joyous dance.
The entire piece was performed by a nine-person company with the ensemble doubling many of the roles. We were told at the outset that the size of the company was limited by the size of the van. We were also taught a song before the show started, which the entire audience sang at an appropriate moment. The lyrics were “Cultivate love, cultivate courage, cultivate strength, cultivate hope,” and when they were song, the sense of community and engagement was deeply moving. Woolery’s simple but intensely imaginative staging and the committed performances by the company were all that was needed to unlock the riches of this piece for anyone willing to go on the journey. “The Tempest” became the kind of deeply human story that’s so needed in these fraught times, this production underscoring the power of theater to touch the heart and in a very real way cultivate those values about which we all sang.