Tempestuous Date Night

Hubby indulged RC2's favorite hobby last night by taking her to a play. The Tempest at The Shakespeare Theatre. She had a bad feeling about the production when she saw from program notes that the guest director, Kate Whoriskey, thinks the play is about freedom and had set the mysterious island of the play in the Middle East somewheres. RC2 is all for artistic experimentation, but despises arch efforts to be "relevant." "Hoo-boy," she said to Hub as the lights dimmed, "Don't be surprised if Caliban (a devil) says, 'if you're not with us, you're with the terrorists' in this production."
Fears proved unfounded, however, and the production is in some ways magnificent. Certainly the most elegantly staged production of Tempest she has seen --the opening shipwreck scene is a triumph-- and the vaguely Arab-African setting allowed Whoriskey to imagine the various sprites and visions Prospero conjures up in marvelous tribal costumes. In the scene where Prospero's usurpers are bewitched for example, she staged a graceful dance from an ensemble of crane-like creatures. (Did you ever see footage of the Broadway version of The Lion King with all those magnificent animal costumes? That's the kind of costumed dance that she used here). She brought all of Prospero's spells to lush life in a manner more successful and believable than any other production RC2 has seen.
Generally a director who thinks so imaginatively about the staging of a play tends not to be a good actor's director. They tend to let the actors do their thing while they themselves focus on the stage business. RC2's rule is: the more lush the production values, the more disappointing the acting. (She is a Michael Kahn fan for this reason, and usually finds the work of guest directors disappointing). Not so, here, however. Philip Goodwin is a solid Prospero, Jeff Allin as the usurping brother did a star turn in the scene where he urges his friend to murder his cousin in his sleep, and the lost drunken sailors were fabulous.
In this production, however, it is really Prospero's spirit-servant, Ariel, who almost becomes the main character. Daniel Breaker's performance is astonishing. As in most Tempests, he has to deliver all his lines in a harness a la Mary Martin in Peter Pan, but this flying went far beyond the usual extending of hands and feet and moving from left to right. He spent a fair amount of time upside down or truly spinning --in the second act, RC2 studied the various tricks he did with his feet to accomplish different moves with the guide wires. He had a lot to do in order to be straight as a board while upside down or to somersault or spin in any direction. In most productions this flying of Ariel doesn't really come off. It always looks like a clumsy guy on a rope. Here Ariel was truly graceful, and Breaker managed to accomplish this while singing his lines and giving a truly insightful performance. Ariel is a sexless spirit, and I have never before last night seen a production in which he isn't played as a fairy --in both senses of the word. This Ariel truly is asexual and mysterious, but also a real and engaging soul. In two moments --the scene where Prospero rebukes Ariel for ingratitude, and the scene where Ariel pities the bad guys-- I can say I actually learned something from this performance. It's a treat.
RC2's friends know she has a pet peeve about the way the part of Miranda is played. Miranda is Prospero's 15-year-old daughter, and since the two of them have been stranded on this island since she was three, she has never seen a human being besides her father. Therefore, the moment that she sees the young hero Ferdinand is a moment of complete wonder and innocence, and the whole meaning of the play stands or falls on the effectiveness of this scene. It is meant to be akin to Adam's discovery of Eve --and himself-- "here at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh." Invariably, however, Miranda's lines are played as double entendres (finally, I get to "do it"). I used to think this was a deliberate effort to inject sexuality where none is, and later decided that no one in the theater today knows what an innocent person would be like, so they are coming by it honestly, not trying to corrupt. Last night, however, something interesting happened. The actress got it right, but the audience didn't! There are really two moments where Miranda expresses her wonder at the good of creation. One when she falls in love with Ferdinand at first sight, and a second when she finally meets the whole crew of the wrecked ship and exclaims, "Oh, brave new world, that has such people in it!" As I say, Samantha Soule, the actress, got it right, but the audience tittered anyway, as if they'd heard a dirty joke. No one understands innocence anymore!
There were two sour notes to my mind. I found the young Ferdinand to be so effiminate that I couldn't imagine any girl wanting to kiss him. Hubby said later that he didn't agree --that he thought the actor was going for "boyish." I wish he'd said that to me at Intermission, maybe I could have gotten past the performance, but as it stands I found him jarring every time he opened his big mouth. Also, they chose to make Caliban into an Iraqi. He comes off as a Palestinian, actually. I suppose they thought this turned the role into a meditation on freedom, but I think if CAIR finds out about this, they will find it offensive. By the plain text of the play, Caliban is a devil or a monster, and playing him as simply a primitive human being just didn't work. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable production and RC2 recommends it.