LENOX - What began as a conversation in a Madison, Wisc. hotel room in the dead of winter has emerged as a theatrical reality in the dead of summer in the Berkshires.
After a week of previews, director Tony Simotes' production of William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" opens tonight on Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer Playhouse stage.
It's been a while, nearly 10 years, Simotes says; since Academy Awardwinning actress Olympia Dukakis looked him square in the face in her hotel room on the coldest day of the year in Madison and said, "I want you to direct me in something" - this from the actress who had taught Simotes when he was a theater student at New York University.
Dukakis was in Madison - where Simotes was director of University Theatre and a full professor at the University of Wisconsin - to perform her one-woman show, "Rose."
But the timing then wasn't right. Informal conversations continued over the years. Everything changed in 2009 when Simotes was named artistic director of Shakespeare & Company.
Since the mid- 1980s, Dukakis has been fascinated with the transition from the matriarchal societies of pre-history to the patriarchal societies that supplanted them.
"How did that happen?" she asked rhetorically during a recent interview in the conference room at Shakespeare & Company's Miller Building, where she joined Simotes and her actor brother, Apollo, who plays Gonzalo in this "Tempest."
She buried herself in research but when she was offered a grant from the Dodge Foundation to turn a private passion into public art, she jumped at the chance. She saw a female Prospero, whom she named Prospera, as emblematic of the matriarchal force and spirit of pre-history. She called her theater piece "The Goddess Project" - its original title was "Another Part of the Island." She began talking to Simotes about bringing " The Goddess Project" to Lenox. "I felt," Simotes said, "that if we were going to do it here it would have to be as 'The Tempest.' " With Dukakis as her Prospera, Simotes promises a " Tempest" unlike any audiences are likely to have ever seen.
For openers, Simotes has moved "The Tempest" to a Mediterranean island circa 1939, a setting that draws not only on elements of Shakespeare's text but Simotes' own family background on the Greek island of Mykonos.
"When you are sitting on the beach in that place," Simotes said, referring to the island in Shakespeare's play, "there is something timeless in a world that is about to change."
Prospera's island domain is not pretty. "We have a very dramatic design in which the floor of the stage has been ripped apart," Simotes said. " The spirit world on this island is real."
" The knowledge and wisdom that Prospera (a powerful magician) brings is from prehistory," Dukakis says. "Spirituality is within plants, within nature. It is not transcendent and if it is not transcendent who carries it? Woman."
Prospera, the Duke of Milan, holds sway over this island, to which she was exiled, along with her daughter, Miranda, 12 years earlier. Driven by a need for revenge, the disenfranchised Prospera seizes the opportunity when it finally comes.
"She wants vengeance," Dukakis said with passionate intensity. "She wants to get back at all of them. She's been disempowered. She is acting out of deep humiliation. She wants her power back. The real question this play asks is 'how do we live?' " "This play takes on a wholly different resonance with a woman (in the Prospero role), this woman," said Apollo.
" This whole project has been a revelation to me," he added. "Tony and I have acted in a couple of shows together and I've directed him. To see him, now, articulate his vision as a director and to see him run this operation is an eyeopener."
It's been an eye-opener for Simotes as well.
" I've never directed this show," Simotes said, acknowledging he's been pushed hard in shaping this production. "I've seen only a few productions. I'm marrying different ideas here into a whole. As director you have to hold that (whole).
" Olympia has some very strong feelings, passion, about this. Our discussions have been intense. That's what's makes this such an exciting project."
What: "The Tempest" by William Shakespeare
Who: Shakespeare & Company
When: Tonight through Aug. 19; press opening -- tonight 7:30
Where: Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
How: (413) 637-3353; www.shakespeare.org; at the box office