Ethan McSweeny’s much-praised production of “The Tempest” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company boasts some pretty big actors. But none so big as these: In the middle of the handsome production set on white sand and beneath a decaying proscenium arch comes a trio of goddesses meant to bless the engagement of Prospero’s daughter Miranda.
The first, Iris, is a surprise with a large head floating above a torso, connected to a pair of hands lofted high above on sticks by only a bolt of gauzy iridescent textile redolent of her title as goddess of the rainbow. With a team of actors-turned-puppeteers beneath her, she floats in on sticks, 10 to 13 feet from head to boot of the fabric.
Then comes Ceres, an even bigger presence at about 14 feet — mostly head. The goddess of agriculture is colored in copper earth tones. But both are topped by perhaps the biggest piece of stagecraft in the theater’s history: an 18-foot-tall Juno — queen of the gods and wife of Jupiter — with a reach between her hands of about 52 feet.
Its head is so large it can’t quite be removed from the stage area. It’s so large it couldn’t fit in the rehearsal hall (instead, they went through its moves at the stage shop). And it’s so large it draws some gasps when it appears.
The pageantry is the kind you’d expect in a Mardi Gras parade, a street demonstration or a Bread and Puppet show.
The puppets, glittering with color and jeweled tones, provide a spellbinding way to prove the height of Prospero’s power right there in Act 4, Scene 1.
Strong acting by a cast that includes Geraint Wyn Davies, Sofia Jean Gomez and C. David Johnson and the text by the Bard (“We are such stuff as dreams are made of”), under Ethan McSweeny’s direction, remain the hallmark of the production. But the vivid accents in the form of the giant goddess heads, in the bold wings of a harpy and in the more subtle shadows of pursuing dogs are testament to how puppetry has become more ingrained in modern stagecraft.
In an era when a galloping puppet is at the heart of a production like “War Horse” or in Julie Taymor’s jungle creatures in “The Lion King,” the selective use of puppeteering is growing in stage productions. For McSweeny, it was a way to deal with a difficult part of “The Tempest” — the change of tone in the masque segment of the play.
“Every director of ‘The Tempest’ has to confront this,” says McSweeny, who was fresh out of college and an assistant director the last time he did “The Tempest” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company — in 1997.
The masque was the tradition of a song or special entertainment meant solely for the royal court of the 15th and 16th centuries. “In Shakespeare’s time, it was fashionable to include these things in a play, like a dance number in a musical or a ballad, in Act 2,” McSweeny says.
Though the Shakespeare Theatre Company may not be the first to use oversize puppets in the scene, it’s hard to imagine any using ones that are bigger.
But the puppets make sense in context of the play, McSweeny says.
In it, Prospero is the ousted Duke of Milan who on a remote island whips up spells to return his daughter to her rightful place by bringing forth his enemies with a storm he conjures, then bests them and celebrates the wedding of Miranda.
“We realized the manifestations of Prospero’s art point to him being a puppeteer — the stage manager, if you will, of all things on the island,” McSweeney says. It’s apparent, too, in his control of a spirit on the island, Ariel, who flies around on a visible tether in the manner of a marionette.
James Ortiz, co-founder and artistic director of Strangemen & Co. in New York, was brought in to design the puppets and found himself caught up in its ambition.
Given a large proscenium in the theater, “I brought up the notion of monumentalism,” Ortiz says. “It needs to be sort of epic. So we did talk about scale.”
First, the goddesses would be the same size, he says. “And then we were going, wouldn’t it be great if we could top ourselves with each one?”
Of its sheer scale, “we all got really excited by that,” Ortiz says. “And then privately, I got horrified.”
He began working on sculpting the heads in New York. But when they were shipped to Washington, “we couldn’t even get them in the rehearsal hall,” McSweeny says.
So they used a corner of the scene shop, where actors learned how to carry and manipulate them and bring them to life (mostly by learning to breathe en masse).
To bring a baroque Renaissance quality McSweeny wanted, Jenny Giering was enlisted to write an operatic piece for the goddesses, sung by Nancy Anderson, McSweeny’s wife.
And then the color came.
“The palette for the whole show was very restrained,” McSweeny says.
It was, Ortiz says, “an opportunity for some actual brilliant color.”
Working with set designer Lee Savage and costume director Jennifer Moeller, their colors of silver, a golden copper and one more tarnished were taken from earth tones and enhanced with increasing amounts of glitter.
“Every day, they got more and more bedazzled,” McSweeny says.
The faces were made from foam rubber on aluminum frames, which can be bulky. Actors operating them couldn’t always see where they were going or the effect. And, yes, there have been mishaps, McSweeny says.
And yet for audiences, there’s a payoff in every performance.
“I didn’t know how much people love puppets until I saw the audience’s reaction,” the director says. “What took me by surprise, but was welcome, was the extent to which people responded emotionally to the puppets.”
The roots of the giant figures may have some relations to street parades or Bread and Puppet theater, Ortiz says. “But I was taking my cues more from bunraku, the Japanese traditional art form passed on from generation to generation.”
Still, there are plenty of contemporary examples.
“Scale is actually a little bit of a fad right now in the puppet world,” says Ortiz, whose next big puppet project is his own “The Woodsman.” opening Jan. 13 in New York. “Post-‘War Horse,’ we love the representation of life in that way, and it’s great. It’s really extra magical for that reason.”
And increasingly, it’s becoming part of works that would never be described as mere puppet shows.
“I think we’re all moving toward a more holistic notion of live theatrical experience encompassing multiple disciplines,” McSweeny says.
Ortiz says, “It’s a tool that should be used when appropriate. There’s a lot of things a puppet can accomplish that a lot of actors or dancers can’t do.
“But there are a lot of things that puppets simply can’t do,” he adds. As with mimes or clowns, puppets “can’t hold a lot of complicated thoughts and feelings.”
McSweeny expects to be back at the Shakespeare this year, when his popular production of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” from two seasons ago is revived. Until then, he’s headed to Ireland to begin his indie feature film debut.
“I’m experiencing another wonderful career shift in which I try to translate what I know about theater into another medium,” McSweeny says, adding that “puppets are good practice for things like that.”
Catlin is a freelance writer.
“The Tempest” has been extended to Jan. 18 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Harman Center for the Arts, 610 F St NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.