INNOCENT BEAUTY: “Ariel” (puppeteer, Mirla Criste), “Ferdinand” (William Li), “Miranda” (Isabel Zermani) in Dram Tree’s ‘The Tempest,’ which opens this week. Photo by Belinda Keller Photography

INNOCENT BEAUTY: “Ariel” (puppeteer, Mirla Criste), “Ferdinand” (William Li), “Miranda” (Isabel Zermani) in Dram Tree’s ‘The Tempest,’ which opens this week. Photo by Belinda Keller Photography

Sorcerers. Shipwrecks. Spells. “The Tempest” portrays an extraordinary world crafted by Shakespeare in the 17th century, which follows themes of love, forgiveness, deception, and magic. Dram Tree Shakespeare will be debuting the show at McEachern’s Warehouse this week, but they’re taking the romance of the story to new heights for Wilmington.

Directed by Emmy Award winner and former Wilmingtonian Michael Granberry, “The Tempest” will be enacted by local performers and puppets filling out a multitude of roles. It’s not a new concept with Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”; just last year the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC did the production with colossal puppets. Granberry is an animator and puppet maker in the stage and film world, most well-known for his work on “Anomalisa,” “From Beyond” and “Zombies VS. Ninjas: The Web Series.”

“Every puppet in the show was custom built by hand for this production,” he tells encore. “I designed and either built or supervised the building of all the three-dimensional puppets with the help of a wonderful army of volunteer puppet makers.”

He has derived input from local shadow-puppet artist and WHQR radio personality, Gina Gambony. She designed and built all shadow puppetry for the play.

“Gina was instrumental in creating a zone of the theatre we call ‘Shadowland,’” Granberry explains. “Shadow puppetry serves to illustrate several crucial scenes that are described happening offstage during the show. The effect is almost like looking into the characters’ minds and seeing their thoughts.”

Voicing some of the characters offstage is former WHQR radio personality Jemila Ericson. In fact, audiences used to hearing Ericson’s soothing tone will be a bit surprised by a different dynamic of spirited vocals. Ericson will take on the voices of Ariel, Harpy, Ship’s Master, and Goddess Juno.

“I am having a blast doing all my characters,” she says. “It’s always more fun to play a villain than a heroine, so I really look forward to the scene where Ariel becomes the Harpy. That’s not a role that most people would give me to portray . . . This character’s voice is way outside the box for me, which is great fun.”

Ericson has found that working behind the curtain literally has been most liberating. Aside from feeling freer to express her acting chops, she screeches outside of her normal speech patterns as Harpy.

“I find myself reacting to the puppet’s actions, which influences my vocal choices,” Ericson details. “And I know the puppeteers are similarly reacting to my voice.”

Mirla Christe is doing the puppeteering for Ericson’s Arial. Christe will dance the puppet’s movements. “I have had to go beyond what’s naturalistic—especially since Ariel is a magical creature and has to elevate gesture beyond human expression,” Christe details. “The puppet, the puppet’s voice (Jemila), and I—all three—inhabit one body, and I therefore tend to refer to Ariel as ‘we.’ The three of us are parts of a whole. I can’t speak for the others, but I don’t feel in any way separate from them.”

Granberry says choosing this route for the show actually frees storytellers from the confines of realism. And that’s even more appropriate for “The Tempest,” which takes place over a three-hour timeline. The story follows a sorcerer, Prospero, who wants to wrestle back power from his brother, Antonio, who forced Prospero out of his title, Duke of Milan. Antonio sent Prospero and his daughter to a deserted island to live for a decade or so, only left with books and a few others things for survival. From studying, Prospero learns the ways of magic, and so he cast a spell over his brother’s fleet at sea to shipwreck and manipulate his return to power. In the process, curses are traded by the two sides, and Prospero’s daughter falls in love with an enemy. The reality of their past lives surface throughout the enchanting story and the characters become more bewitching in their entanglements. The puppet element of the show becomes metaphorically and thematically imbedded in the whole experience—even elevating the story.

“When Shakespeare mentions characters who can fly like the wind, we can actually show what that looks like because puppets aren’t affected by gravity or other physical limitations,” Granberry explains. “Part of the conflict in ‘The Tempest’ comes from the different expectations of the human characters, led by Prospero, and the nonhuman characters who are all bound into servitude by them. The use of puppetry allows us to highlight these differences even more.”

Isabel Zermani will be playing a human character, Miranda, Prospero’s daughter. Though she isn’t overseeing the motions of puppets, interacting with them has been eye-opening for her as an actress.

“If the intention of the operator is there, the emotion comes through [the puppets] quite cleanly,” she tells. “As an actor, I have to adjust my expectations of how that puppet is going to move or respond to me. You just have to accept the parameters; they are going to fly, they are slow-moving, whatever it is, and just make that your reality.”

Miranda’s innocence and intrepid sense of curiosity has inspired Zermani. Having been cast away on a deserted island, her notions of the world are veiled to a certain degree; she only has ever known her father and the magical creatures of the island.

“She’s purely driven by her natural emotions and isn’t bound by the self-consciousness society imposes about how a girl or woman ‘should act’ or what she ‘should want,’” Zermani says. “She’s bold, she trusts herself, but that doesn’t make matters of the heart without great risk and requiring a leap of vulnerability.”

Filling out other characters in the cast are John Stafford as Prospero, Alyssa Fetherolf as Trinculo/Nyad, Noah Harrell as Boatswain, William Li as Ferdinand, Justin Smith as Sebastian, Kim Pachecho as Ceres, Tony Rivenbark as Gonzalo, Ashley Grantham as Alonso, among many more. Sam Robison will be playing the villainous Antonio.

“Being very, very bad can feel very, very good,” Robison says. “The cast is brimming with heavy-hitters. Take all that talent, plus over 200 hand-made puppets—who  make my job easier; instead of imagining the phantasmagorical, all I have to do is open my eyes and there it is—and put them into the brilliantly imaginative hands of Michael Granberry is a moving, hilarious, and mind-blowing experience you will never forget.”

“The Tempest” opens April 14; tickets are only $10 on opening night for all film and theater professionals.

The Tempest
April 14 – May 1, Thurs.-Sun., 7:30 p.m.
Doors open at 7 p.m. • $10-$25
McEachern’s Warehouse
121 S. Front St. • 910-726-3545

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