Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Tempest Lacking Spirit

Stephen Dillane enters the stage while the audience wanders in; they ignore him. He sits near the musician stage left, reading what looks like a script. Dillane’s Prospero is dressed in a raggedy suit and messy shirt, no shoes. Well, it’s a desert island. What fools wear shoes in the sand?

Yes, there is sand. At stage center is a large ring filled with sand. Shades of Ingmar Bergman – the central playing area is a circle. No matter – think of Prospero’s magic as producing a circus, and you’re set. Also on stage left, heading off behind the musician, are rows of bookshelves leading to Prospero’s “cell” on his magical island. Prospero’s library survived the sea quite well.

The balancing act is on stage right -- another musician sits amongst instruments, beyond which are stacks of kindling.

There’s some Beckett going on here. In an interview, Dillane confirmed that Beckett informed his performance as Jaques in the “As You Like It” (hereinafter AYLI) we saw last month – Dillane had been looking for the Beckett aspect of Jaques (who knows why), and I believe he found it.

The scenic design was the Beckett aspect of “The Tempest” at the BAM Harvey last week. It’s spare. Suggestive. To me, hopeful.

Although the program says the play runs 2 ¾ hours with intermission, clearly a different choice has been made since the program was printed – the play is now running without an intermission for 2 ¼ hours.

Dillane’s Prospero starts the show. He stands and pulls on a tattered thick robe and a fabulous if molting feathered belt. The audience quiets down. Prospero picks up an ordinary galvanized bucket and walks the circumference of the central disk, flicking water onto the sand. This action raises Spirits, and the action of the play begins.

Christian Camargo as Ariel enters from a doorway set 6 or 8 or 10 feet high in the back wall; he comes down a ramp through a newly formed pond that has appeared across the back third of the stage. Simultaneously two minion sprites (the Audrey and Celia of AYLI) cross the pond, and the threesome create The Tempest tossing about the ship of the King of Naples and his entourage –

  • Alonso, King of Naples (Jonathan Lincoln Fried – he was enjoyable on occasion, but too often a cipher)
  • Alonso’s son and heir Ferdinand (Edward Bennett – the excellent Oliver of AYLI, destined lover of Miranda, he does all he can here)
  • the “honest old counselor” Gonzalo (a once again unrecognizable Alvin Epstein – he’s a magician, he’s Sherlock Holmes),
  • Sebastian, sleazy brother of the King of Naples (Richard Hansell). I liked his work; his moments of hesitation in the plot against his brother were a welcome nuance, and the witless banter between Sebastian and Antonio worked well, although there were times I didn’t hear them –sound design issue.
  • Antonio, sleazier brother of Prospero, is the usurping Duke of this play (Michael Thomas, who played usurping and usurped Dukes in AYLI), is quite amusing in the funny bits, but not powerful in his evil intentions. I never believed he’d succeed. And
  • Adrian, a lord in priestly garb (Aaron Krohn, who did such a fine job as Silvius in AYLI). Krohn does as good a job here, simple, clear, sincere. I can’t wait to see him in larger roles, bringing the clarity and honesty to us for longer periods of time.
  • Let us not forget the sole representative of the solid, hard-working, competent persons of the ship: the Boatswain, well played by Ross Waiton. He mutters, he growls at his aristocratic passengers as Ariel manipulates each character in turn while stage managing the storm.

Problem: The dialogue in the storm scene is largely indiscernible. (The problem being the sound design. Ever been to a rock concert where the singer’s mike is just not that level above the guitars that it needs to be? Like that.)

No problem: The emotions read strong. Everybody’s going to die.

Meanwhile, back on the island, Prospero’s daughter Miranda is quite upset, having seen the pitching ship and fearing all hands are lost. She cannot help but question her father if his magics are the cause.

Even at a distance, she appears much older than the 15 years the script sums for us. Generally I don’t care about this sort of thing. Shakespeare’s no walk in the park, and no one in his/her right mind expects very young actors to play his characters convincingly. And again, the woman is competent at scansion, if lacking in believable feeling. However, in this production, the age problem adds insult to injury. While not as annoying as she was as Rosalind in AYLI (to be mathematically fair, Miranda has far less to say than Rosalind), Juliet Rylance is so wrong for Miranda I cannot understand what’s what here. In a repertory company, my understanding has always been that the person who had the lead in one play cannot expect to get the lead in the next. Why isn’t Michelle Beck (AYLI’s underused Celia) playing Miranda? I’d be even happier to see Jenni Barber in this role (AYLI’s delightful Audrey). Both women are more than capable of doing a much better Miranda than Rylance. As usual, no one confers with me first in these casting decisions, so there she was again.

Note: Whoever is writing program notes for this series of Bridge Project productions is not selling these shows at all. Sam Mendes’ “Director’s Note” is mostly Ted Hughes, and Mr. Hughes is not a theatrical. He is a poet and as such not qualified to produce a play. Yes, I know, some of my best friends (not a euphemism!) are poets and theatricals (writers, directors, actors, producers); nevertheless, these are different forms. In college I recall totally dismissing an alleged theatre teacher because he called Shakespeare a poet. (You remember college: Zero tolerance.) Sure he’s a poet. In the Sonnets. But Shakespeare put the “W” in “PlayWright,” not the “P” in “Poet.” This is not poetry. This is Theatre. Plays are wrought. Not to mention (what an odd, contradictory phrase), the provided synopses of both AYLI and The Tempest belong in Cliff Notes, not BAM programs. Yes, I’m done.

Shake it off.” I am shaking it off, and that reminds me: Does Prospero actually say “Shake it off” in this play?? The wonder of this modern-feeling phrase coming from Dillane’s Prospero rippled through the audience. But sure enough, it’s not Dillane. It’s Prospero: There it is: Iii, line 307 in my Pelican paperback.

As a rule, I think Stephen Dillane is swell (and I loved his unusual Beckettian Jaques). However, when his Prospero spoke, he started off shouting. I don’t like shouters. I can never forget Herbert Berghof’s dictum: “If you shout you’d better have a damned good reason.” Then Dillane’s tone -- and volume -- modulated. OK. Although perhaps a bit too much in the softer direction. He was certainly fascinating, and what he did certainly coincided with Mendes’ presumed vision. I think that he was playing too much of Prospero’s final realizations too early in the play. It’s a choice. Apparently not mine. Still, I would watch and listen to Dillane do anything.

Alvin Epstein as the good Gonzalo – three quarters of the time I either could not hear or understand him. This has become a continuing problem – while his behavior tells all, I do want to hear the words. So, all students of theatre, watch him to understand what your body, its movement, its stillness, its stance, can communicate. But put those marbles in your mouths and practice so I can hear the words with which Shakespeare gifted us.

Christian Camargo as Ariel. I had concern when I saw that casting – although I liked Camargo in The Hurt Locker and Dexter, I disliked his Orlando in AYLI. As far as I’m concerned, no romantic leads for Camargo. As Ariel, he was interesting. He sings very well. Physically an odd choice; he does not move as one might imagine a sprite does. When he is very still, however, particularly when gazing lovingly on Prospero, I felt the character came through more clearly. However, were I to cast a male in the role of Ariel, he’d be…Baryshnikov. Who may not be available these days for a world tour, but it’s a guideline. Baryshnikov-like.

This is the second time I’ve seen Aaron Krohn, and although he’s not “pulling focus,” he’s more interesting than many of his colleagues on the stage. He just gives us …more heart, and this while he’s giving clean readings and a clear character. Ariel is a spirit not a human but that doesn’t mean s/he doesn’t have heart. Yes, that means I might well have enjoyed Krohn’s interpretation of Ariel over Camargo’s.

Ron Cephas Jones as Caliban won me over. I’m not entirely sure what I expected – Caliban’s role can certainly be political. His entrance was marvelous, bursting out of the sand through a hole that was not there before, from the depths of the earth. A terrific bit o’ theatre, as my friend Stef would have said. His speech is harsh and poetic, and he gets it. Jones’s Caliban works. Jones’s body is not monstrous, but his Caliban is a distorted, growling, groveling, lascivious boot licker, the dregs of humanity -- but human he most certainly is.

When describing the passengers on the doomed ship tossed about in the tempest, I left out some people. We didn’t see them for a while, but happily we meet the shipwrecked Trinculo and Stephano. Not the upper echelons of society, but much more fun than the more illustrious characters.

Anthony O’Donnell, the very same delightful actor who played Corin in AYLI, plays the plaid-clad clown Trinculo. Hilarious. Dare I say “perfect.” Thomas Sadoski (AYLI’s appealing Touchstone) is a fine drunken Stephano. The comic scenes in this production were truly funny, unforced. Laughter abounded. Not relying on some miraculously different interpretation, these pros just gave us damn funny scenes, timing right on every mark. Absolutely not as easy as it looked. Gems.

Visuals: Pleasing. Clever staging, in the scene in which Ariel sets Sebastian and Antonio up to show their evil against the King of Naples. A lot more clever staging with Ariel in the comic scenes between Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo.

Unfortunately, the hallucination of a spritely wedding was entirely earthbound, not in the slightest bit ethereal (despite the lovely singing led by Jenni Barber). It was not particularly amusing, not jolly, not beautiful. Prospero’s abrupt ending of it was a relief.

Let me be clear: I enjoyed myself. I enjoyed Stephen Dillane’s Prospero much but not all of the time. I enjoyed Camargo’s Ariel some but not all of the time. I enjoyed Anthony O’Donnell’s Trinculo every moment he was on and waited for his return. Also Sadoski’s Stephano and Jones’ Caliban: all the time.

The royals from Naples didn’t do much for me, although they were certainly clear and serviceable. And I do like Aaron Krohn -- his turn as Adrian (here combined with Francisco) was sincere and alive.

Miranda gets a thumbs down as stated earlier. I would have liked to see her understudy. Say no more.

This production is intelligent. Its intellectual choices are clear, as is most of the language, lots of which is heavily edited (I think everyone knows I don’t like long plays, but 2 ¼ hours? Shakespeare? Really?). The funny scenes are very funny. If you think “The Tempest” should tug at your heartstrings, you may be disappointed. However, put it all together: I enjoyed the production. Without strong feelings about this play, it’s hardly fair for me to analyze it any further so as to disagree with this, that and the other choice. Others will or have done that: e.g., http://matthewslikelystory.blogspot.com/2010/03/rarer-action-is-in-virtue-than-in.html

My advice is to have fun, watch the light reflecting off the shallow pools onto the stage walls, and dream of summer.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Feeling young enough to not identify with Prospero....

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