Dennis McLernon’s acting skills made a strong impression on a wide-eyed and arts-loving freshman at Allentown College more than 30 years ago.
So when Julie George-Carlson founded the Freeport Shakespeare Festival in Freeport, Maine, this past year, and it was decided The Tempest would be the festival’s first play this summer, she knew exactly whom she wanted to call to play the leading role of Prospero.
|Dennis McLernon has directed The Tempest. He’s played one of the lords in a production of the play at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Now he’s preparing for the lead role of Prospero for the first time this summer at the inaugural Freeport Shakespeare Festival.
“I had a conversation with an artistic associate about The Tempest, and I told this fellow that if I had to pick one actor who I knew would be able to embody all of the characteristics that were needed for Prospero, I would only want to consider Dennis,” George-Carlson says. “When I called him, and he said yes, I can’t tell you how happy I was.”
George-Carlson is the principal organizer of the Freeport Shakespeare Festival, which will take its inaugural bow Aug. 3-6 in the open-air amphitheater on the campus of clothier L.L. Bean.
The hope is the festival will evolve into a smaller version of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival or the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, which draw tens of thousands of culture- and arts-thirsty tourists.
McLernon has directed The Tempest and played one of the lords in a production of the play at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, but this will be his first time to play the role of Prospero.
“The role is fantastic, and it’s very flattering to be asked to do it,” McLernon says. “I’ve had the script for about a month, and I’ve already begun memorizing my lines. My goal is to show up at rehearsal next month with my lines memorized so I can really have as much fun and grow and explore as I can.”
Even as a young college actor, George-Carlson says McLernon demonstrated a remarkable capacity to be present in a role and was an actor who was serious about his responsibility to the text, the playwright and the audience.
George-Carlson says she was determined to stay informed about McLernon’s career after his graduation. She kept in touch with him for 20-plus years after he left school, following his career path and forging her own in the theater business.
Their paths were about to cross again this past year when the Freeport Shakespeare Festival board held its first meeting. Because Maine frequently receives rain during the month of August, one board member suggested they do The Tempest — a play suited to such an event.
Day of crisis
The Tempest follows the trials and tribulations of Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, who along with his infant daughter Miranda was put to sea on boat to die by his usurping brother Antonio 12 years before the play begins. Prospero and Miranda survived their journey and found exile on a small island where he learned sorcery.
By chance, Antonio sails near this island years later and Prospero conjures the eponymous tempest, which forces his brother and his henchmen ashore.
“This is Prospero’s day of crisis, and it is the most important day of his adult life,” McLernon says. “If he does not act on his enemies finding their way to the island, chances are he and his daughter may never get off. What’s very interesting beyond that is that he is faced with having to forgive his brother and his fellow conspirators. He was dethroned in a coup and left to die at sea with his infant daughter. It’s really despicable, and it’s a lot to forgive.”
McLernon has played many leading Shakespearean roles, including Macbeth, Claudius in Hamlet and Malvolio in the Twelfth Night. But he says the fact that he is close in age to Prospero and has a daughter close in age to Miranda makes the role of Prospero very personal.
“It’s special as an actor when a character’s circumstances coincide with your own,” McLernon says. “Imagination has a lot to do with it, but when things cross over like this it’s really kind of wonderful.”
George-Carlson says having McLernon on board has given her and the production a great sense of tranquility and optimism.
“I can’t begin to describe the senses of calm, positivity and possibility that have emerged since he agreed to do this role,” she says.
“Dennis will bring a grounded sense of character and a thorough understanding of the world of the play and will serve as a terrific role model to the rest of the company.”
McLernon attended a fundraiser in Free-port in February and was impressed with how George-Carlson has rallied support for the inaugural season.
She has involved many local artists, including local union actors and puppet artisans. In fact, during the masque portion of The Tempest, local puppet masters are creating a series of puppets to be used during the play’s entertainment section.
“The masque section of The Tempest serves mainly as an entertainment for the young lovers and has little to do with the crisis of the plot, but it was a device used in plays in that period of time,” McLernon says. “It’s really shaping up to be amazing.”
George-Carlson certainly hopes so. And she believes with McLernon on board, it certainly has that chance.
“Dennis always has been someone that I am glad to have known in my life. He has always exemplified talent, yes, but also he has embodied a love of life, of human dignity, justice and pragmatism,” George-Carlson says.
“I appreciate having the opportunity to be his friend and his colleague. I think he will be a fantastic Prospero and I look forward to working with him in a director/actor relationship,” she says. “I hope that his colleagues, students and friends from UAB will avail themselves of the opportunity to see this production. I anticipate that it will be the first of many future collaborative experiences for us.”