reviewed by G.L. Horton
This seems to be the year for ambitious new directorial interpretations of "The Tempest". Director Ron Daniels says in his American Repertory Theatre production notes that he is staging "The Tempest" as an encounter between Old World "nurture" or "culture" and New World "nature", from which encounter the European exiles will return to their homeland "enriched by a greater understanding of themselves". But self-understanding, here, turns out to be a counsel of despair.
This "Tempest" is a tale of disillusion, wherein both old and new world are drained of human warmth. Friendship, kinship, romance, degree and courtesy, learning and wit, poetry itself -- all are but phantasims, brave and diverting while new, but to the eye of the poet's hard-won wisdom mere masks for lust and domination. Power is so corrupting that even the power of art must be abjured, and the poet-magician resign himself to a state where "every third thought shall be my grave".
The production's design elements and acting style cooperate in this bleak vision. John Conklin's stark set is a sun-baked beach, on which a segment of some gigantic marble construction arches up into the vivid blue sky "as if a huge instrument for the study of astronomy has landed violently." All signs of the Pastoral are banished from this version of Nature. There are no sheltering caves, no green and leafy bowers, no blameless rural joys.
The Italian nobility is costumed by designer Gabriel Berry in stiff dark damask, with carapace ruffs and cothurnic heels. Cast ashore, they skitter about looking more like cockroaches caught in a sudden light than like human beings. The actors say their lines facing out, as if in soliloquy or aside. They don't listen: these are either the most wooden actors ever to strut the stage, or they are portraying a set of characters who find their fellows of no interest unless they are planning to make use of them.
Stephano, the King of Naples' drunken butler (Charles Levin), and Trinculo the jester (Thomas Derrah), seem at first to be an exception to the wooden standard. Levin and Derrah are masters of physical comedy working together like a well-oiled machine, their coordination the closest thing to a realized relationship in the production. But what looks at first like friendship is only a drunken parody of a relationship; and the relationship they parody is the central one of the play, that of master and slave.
Ariel (Benjamin Evett), the ethereal spirit who is Prospero's first slave, looks like an albino Aborigine: nearly naked, reddish skin with white markings, long wild locks of pale blonde hair. Evett somehow manages to look graceful and dignified in this undress, mostly by employing a physical characterization that is more fire than air. Composer Bruce Odland has set Ariel's familiar lyrics to unearthly music, which Evett performs in a.pure white-toned voice that ranges from baritone to countertenor.
Caliban (Jack Willis), the original inhabitant and ruler of the island, has been reduced to Prospero's second slave. Willis is costumed -- like Evett's Ariel -- in painted flesh. His shaved head is rust red, with big yellow spots. Shakespeare's text says that Caliban looks like a fish. Hulking Jack Willis, his body painted salmon-pink, looks nothing like a fish. He might pass for a huge desert lizard, in some red-rocked Australian outback. There is a wonderful bit of foolery where, when Trinculo has crawled under Caliban's cloak, Thomas Derrah's four foot high pointed dunce cap becomes the lizard-monster's tail, waggling along in mutual panic. Willis has played some notable heavies for the ART company, and Willis's Caliban has a full malignancy. He, "who once was mine own king" has added a few European lessons to the amoral sensuality that is his state of nature. But Caliban is the only character here that is allowed anything like a full range of human response: Willis uses it to wring every drop of humor out of his lines. Caliban's poetic imagination, his childlike eagerness, gives a relief that is more than comic to the grim stereotypes that surround him.
Director Daniels has cast as Prospero Paul Freeman, an actor whose specialty is larger than life villainy -- Moriarty, Belloq in "Raiders of the Lost Ark", Claudius in "Hamlet", Ivan Ooze. Freeman's Prospero is all pride, lust and anger, held in check by an iron will . His hair and beard are graying, but the body is not the fragile shell of an aging scholar, but the firm musculature of a disciplined warrior. Prospero, too, is stripped to a loincloth, his "magic garment" a towering feather headdress rather than the traditional wizard's robe. When this Shaman of a Prospero delivers his long speeches, ostensibly to Miranda, he does not look at his daughter, but takes up a ritual one-legged crane posture, bracing himself with his staff and fixing his gaze upward as if in a prophetic trance.
In the twelve years they have spent on the island, Prospero would have been Miranda's whole world: father, mother, playmate, teacher, master and servant. Yet of these roles, only that of master is brought into play in this interpretation. There is no element of eventual equality in Freeman's relationship with his daughter, none of the sort of nurture whose goal is to create a companion and friend. Prospero has hidden their common past from his daughter to mask the vengeful rage inside him. Jessalyn Gilsig's Miranda fears him. She addresses him as "sir" with downcast eyes, kneels to him, scampers to do his bidding, dutifully tries to stay attentive through speeches which are incomprehensible and boring to her.
Freeman's Prospero seems to recognize that he has stifled Miranda's curiosity and crippled her will. Since the girl is likely to obey her husband with the same unquestioning subservience she gives her father, Prospero's best hope for his daughter's happiness is to make certain that the master he turns her over to is kind and self-controlled. But time is running out. Miranda is ripe for a mate. Her foster brother Caliban has already tried to "force her innocence", and "people the isle with Calibans" -- it was for this that Prospero reduced him to a slave. Incest lurks everywhere on this island, and nature, like a man's own kin, is not to be trusted. Prospero raised the tempest to blow onto the island the one bridegroom whose marriage to Miranda might satisfy her father's vengeance: Ferdinand (Scott Ripley), the son and heir of that King of Naples (Jeremy Geidt) who plotted with Prospero's wicked brother Antonio (Remo Airaldi) to steal the dukedom of Milan.
The direction and costuming of the young lovers seems to support this bleak interpretation. Gilsig's Miranda wears a skimpy yellow rag decorated with doodles like tattoos, girt round with a metallic bodice wrap that flattens out her curves. She has been blocked into the attitudes of an insecure adolescent, all awkward knees and elbows. When Prince Ferdinand hails her as a "goddess", one can only feel that some potent enchantment of Prospero's has been at work -- or that Ferdinand has been far too long at sea.. The prince himself is no prize. Pasty complexion, spindly limbs, a constricted voice -- Ferdinand's mighty effort to mold himself into something worthy of the object of his infatuation is endearing, but he is not a hero to inspire confidence.
The masque that Prospers orders up to celebrate the betrothal is where the themes come together. Daniels has "deconstructed" the play's Iris, Juno and Ceres, and substituted his own "insubstantial pageant" featuring personifications of Europe, The Americas, and Africa---La Raza Cosmica, Daniels calls it. The pageant combines present-day South American Carnival with explorers' impressions of the New World. Abundance and desirability take the shapes of bared dark skin bathed in magical moonlight and backed by glittering silver parasols, singing and dancing seductively in Amy Spencer's choreography until Prospero himself breaks from his rigid self-control and "goes native". The magician takes up a drum and gyrates madly, obscenely. ---then cuts the pageant short, with the excuse that he has forgotten the plot against his life. But Prospero has seen in these shapes a sudden monster, that he must "acknowledge mine".
The rest of the play is wound up in a perfunctory fashion. The plotters appear in penitential white undergarments, but there's no evidence that any of them regret their crimes, or have learned anything from their punishment. Milan and Naples will be as full of betrayal and conspiracy as before, once the voyage is over.
It is strange that this play, in which no grown women appear to demand a hearing, and in which the "natives" are not a separate culture but merely the projection of the ruler's own mind, is being used as a mirror for the crises of legitimacy presently working themselves out in the societies that grew up out of the voyages of exploration and conquest that inspired Shakespeare to write it. Possibly the utopian visions of the sixties (reprised this week in France) bear some relation to Gonzalo's speeches in praise of Edenic equality --" no use of service, of riches or of poverty". But this production goes to some length to discredit Gonzalo, and render his mouthings mere hypocrisy and hot air.
In the opening scene of the storm at sea, the Boatswain orders his "betters" to go below, on the authority of his superior seamanship, and he curses the nobility when they don't snap to and obey. The Boatswain is usually played by the sort of actor who is cast as the old gravedigger in Hamlet-- a working class cuss who can hold his own with the noble star, his face a map of hard territory.
Gonzalo (Alvin Epstein) calls the Boatswain's complexion "perfect gallows", and tells the nobles that the ship and all must survive, because a man with such a face as the Boatswain's was born to be hanged, not drowned. But there is nothing out of the ordinary, nothing suggesting the criminal, about the face of D'metrius Conley-Williams, the handsome first-year student from the ART Institute who plays the Boatswain -- except that his face happens to be black. Gonzalo, the benevolent, wise Gonzalo, is shown up as a racist. This Tempest blows us into troubling territory, where the assumptions of power have corrupted beyond the reach of forgiveness.