The first time Dustin Williams adapted Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” he left almost all of the Bard’s original plot and language intact.
Looking back, that decision was made out of fear, he admits.
As someone who reveres Shakespeare, “I was very afraid to do anything,” says Williams, the artistic director of Wolfbane Productions. “I didn’t trust myself as a storyteller.”
Things have changed for Williams since his Appomattox-based company staged its first attempt at “Tempest” at Randolph College in 2011.
Since then, he has reworked “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” into a ’90s pop-fueled extravaganza and transformed “Romeo and Juliet” into a Civil War tragedy.
Fear no longer drives his creative impulses.
The version of “Tempest” audiences will see when Wolfbane’s second take on the play opens today is the one Williams says he always envisioned.
“This is a show that hits at the center of me,” he says. “... It’s Shakespeare plus ‘Adventure Time.’”
Thought to be the last play Shakespeare wrote, “Tempest” opens in the middle of a violent storm (in other words, a tempest) as a ship is cast onto the rocks of a remote island. Audiences soon learn that this wreck was no accident but part of a plot by the magical Prospero — Prospera in Wolfbane’s production — to seek revenge on those who betrayed and exiled him 12 years earlier.
Using his two servants, the spirit Ariel and half-monster Caliban, Prospero begins to torment the shipwrecked crew, but his plans change when his daughter, Miranda, falls in love with one of the captives.
Wolfbane’s new adaptation has the same beats as the original play, but Williams has reworked these elements, adding in more spells and mystical creatures and turning a minor subplot involving a murder scheme into a driving arc that culminates in a final battle between good and evil.
“Shakespeare’s story comes to a conclusion in our Act One,” Williams says.
Because an epic story needs an equally epic setting, Wolfbane’s production team knew they couldn’t keep the stage small like it was at Randolph.
Following Williams’ expansive vision, the company built a multi-level, outdoor set that stretches for more than 70 feet.
It is quite possibly Wolfbane’s largest set to date, says Christine Yepsen, the production’s technical director.
Prospera’s island — which was built at the Wolfbane Performing Arts Center, called the PAC, in Appomattox — incorporates elements of the forest that surrounds it, including branches and a lot of moss.
“The world and the set kind of morph into one another,” says actress Sabina Petra, who plays Prospera. “... We talk so much about the sun and the stars and the sky. And it’s right there, which is really wonderful.”
Williams also added a layer of mysticism to the entire production, incorporating artifacts he collected from a recent trip to Scotland into the set. A rock from Balnuaran of Clava, an ancient ritual site and burial ground near Inverness, rests under the large Celtic symbol at center stage, while a piece of the dormant volcano Arthur’s Seat sits on the ground under stage right.
A bit of water from Loch Ness flows through the set’s working waterfall, which also includes a piece of stone from St. Margaret’s Chapel in Edinburgh Castle.
There’s “all kinds of wonderful stuff [in the show] that’s very Celtic and Pagan in its feel,” says Williams, who wrote an entire backstory for the magical island that is rooted in Gaelic folklore.
In keeping with Wolfbane’s tradition of audience participation, the crew has also built a storm zone where those who choose to brave the tempest will be buffeted by rain and wind during key, dramatic scenes.
But don’t expect to end up drenched.
“It’ll still feel like a storm, but it’s more [of] the atmosphere,” says Yepsen. “The wind and the rain are just an added bonus.”
Emma Schkloven covers arts and entertainment for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5489, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byEmmaSchkloven.