This weekend I had the pleasure of sitting front row center at American Repertory Theatre’s production of The Tempest, re-imagined by famed magician Teller (of Penn & Teller fame).
I think that the best thing I can do is just walk through the play and describe what I saw. This will include a whole bunch of spoilers, so factor that in as you will. If you’ve got tickets and haven’t seen the show yet, by all means don’t read this.
We open with Ariel, who looks a whole lot like Commander Data from Star Trek : The Next Generation, performing card tricks at the edge of the stage. He brings an audience member up to perform and interactive trick. Never says a word. Fine, I guess. Sort of like a warm up act.
Center stage is a clear bowl full of water, and a paper sailboat. The stage is split into levels, with plenty of room taken up by the musicians. The music is a big deal here, by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. There are two singers, and musicians playing a wide array of instruments, including parts of the stage. I could swear I saw one of them playing wine goblets full of water.
Enter Prospero, dressed like a classic stage magician, tails and all, carrying the traditional magician’s wand. He looks a bit like Vincent Price, to pin a name to the character. The magic begins as Prospero sets the boat in the water, and starts producing smoke from his hands. The sailors and crew come on stage, on the higher level. Prospero sets the paper boat spinning without ever touching it. It’s sitting in a clear bowl of water so we cannot see what mechanism is causing it to move. All of a sudden it plunges into the water. Prospero crushes it with his hands. “We’ve split! We’ve split!” we hear as the first dialogue of the play.
The whole opening has clearly been re-interpreted, and it’s very dark. Ferdinand is the only character to “fall” overboard, and by that I mean Ariel drags him away from his companions. Alonso screams after his son, and even removes his crown and tries to use it as a life preserver by holding it out for him. There’s a nice shot of both their hands clutching the crown before Ariel drags Ferdinand away, still holding the crown. Then, in something straight out of Penn & Teller’s playbook, Ariel drowns him in the pool of water. Holds the actor’s head under water while his arms and legs kick and flail, and eventually stop. All the while Alonso and the others watch in horror. This is fascinating. Completely different than the text, of course, but fascinating. It’s clear from this scene that Alonso has just watched his son drown. Powerful stuff. That’s all we get of the opening. No introduction of the characters, no Gonzalo looking for a bit of dry land. Just dead Ferdinand.
Ferdinand’s not dead of course, and shows up on the island in some sort of bird cage. In something that I haven’t seen a lot, Ferdinand is a ….well, a nerd. He’s terrified, has no idea what’s going around, jumps at every noise. He reminds me a lot of Kevin, the curly headed guy from Kids in the Hall, if anybody remembers that show. It’s a cute act that adds something to the character, but it did get tiresome. There’s just so much you can do with the role I suppose.
Caliban…..defies explanation. He is portrayed by two actors, simultaneously. I would say “conjoined twins” but that doesn’t do it justice. They have not been stitched together into some sort of single costume. They are both wearing loin cloths and covered head to toe in this reddish green mud, which I did like. But they were more like acrobats or contortionists, carrying each other around the stage all the time. Sometimes one would be piggy back on the other, another time he’d stand on the other guy’s needs and stand up straight so he was and shoulders taller. And then sometimes they’d just cartwheel themselves upside down so now somebody else was on top. They spoke of themselves in the singular, and both of them delivered every line simultaneously. That effect was pretty neat, gave a real other-worldly quality to his lines. But what was the directorial intent of the two bodies? I really have no idea. It was a great visual effect, to be sure. And it added the boardwalk/sideshow feel that the show was going for. But I don’t know if it was supposed to say anything about Caliban’s character.
Trinculo and Stephano came up….you know what? I was going to say they came up short but I’m not going to say that, because Trinculo was played by a little person and I did not intend it as a joke. Both of our jesters come out with musical instruments, looking like something out of Guys and Dolls with suspenders holding their pinstriped pants up over wife beater t-shirts. Their scenes were all chopped up, since they decided to have Stephano enter singing some original music and then interact with the audience too much. Stephano in particular seemed like he was given to much freedom to improvise, given his comic role. He asked whether Trinculo was a moon-calf turd. Really? He even left in the “can this moon-calf vent Trinculos?” line instead of switching to the obvious fart joke. Later, when Ariel throws his voice (“Thou liest!”) he does it using a cool trick of animating the handkerchief in Trinculo’s pocket. Which causes Stephano to say, “You didn’t say it? You’re telling me the magic hanky said it?” Stop breaking the illusion, damnit.
All the rest are, well, the rest. Miranda is about what you’d expect, although more on her a bit later. Each of the others is introduced during Prospero’s retelling of his backstory, as Ariel plays the role of magician’s assistant and causes each character to appear on stage when Prospero mentions his name. Or her, since Gonzalo is played by a woman in this production.
Antonio is, well, evil. Over the top evil. If he had a bigger beard he would have spent the play stroking it. Scheming scheming, always scheming. Sebastian, on the other hand, is basically a big ball of nothing. He’s playing it like he’s so busy being scared to death of the island that he barely understands what Antonio is asking of him, yet he’s supposed to be prepared to do it? I wasn’t really buying it.
I quite loved Alonso. He saw his son drown. He’s in denial. He’s roaming the island, looking for hope that his son is still alive. And, because he is the king, everyone just follows him. So when we get our ultimate happy ending, I was actually overjoyed for him to be reunited with his son. His speechless realization of everything that Prospero had said about losing his own daughter was quite wonderful, and honestly brought a tear to my eye.
Best illusion, by far, was the banquet scene. There are illusions throughout the play, of course, in ways you wouldn’t imagine. But you know that something big has to be coming for the banquet reveal. The “fairies” in this case are human-sized crows dressed as butlers, which is oddly amusing. They reveal the banquet, and offer napkins and hot towels to the guests. One raises the giant dish in the center to reveal a roast turkey, before putting it back. I’m pretty sure I see Alonso sample some of the food, which correct me if I’m wrong is a mistake, isn’t it? I thought part of the whole point was that they never touched the food.
Anyway, right as they are about to dive into the food a fairy opens up the banquet tray again to reveal that the turkey has been replaced by a zombie head. Screaming and running ensues, and Ariel appears. Ariel as harpy, right? Scary demon bird creature? Nah. Just Ariel in his same costume, holding Prospero’s cape like it’s wings. I was pretty disappointed at that. But then!
You fools! I and my fellows
Are ministers of Fate: the elements,
Of whom your swords are temper’d, may as well
Wound the loud winds, or with bemock’d-at stabs
Kill the still-closing waters, as diminish
One dowle that’s in my plume: my fellow-ministers
Are like invulnerable. If you could hurt,
Your swords are now too massy for your strengths
And will not be uplifted. But remember–
For that’s my business to you-
AND THEN *POOF* ARMS GO UP, CAPE GOES UP, AND ARIEL IS FRICKIN PROSPERO! Center stage, instantaneous switch, I never saw it coming. Truly a holy shit moment, pardon my language, but that’s what it was. And now it’s the illusion/hallucination of long dead Prospero screaming at his enemies
And so on. Seriously, I love that. A little confusing for the newbie audience who was probably thinking that Prospero had just revealed himself to the party, but I recognized it for the desired illusion/hallucination that they were going for.
Enough of the illusions, because I don’t want to give the impression that all we got was magic. They made some interesting directorial decisions that I found showed some real attention to detail:
Antonio is the only character who does not repent. When Miranda does her brave new world speech, she runs to touch every new person – and Antonio flinches away from her, refusing to be touched, standing away from the rest of the party. They all exit until it is just Prospero and Antonio. Prospero puts out his hands in forgiveness and I think, “Oh, you’d better not show a reunion!” but I am pleased that Antonio instead hides his face in his hands and runs away, unable to look at his brother. I don’t know if I ever really thought of Antonio as *ashamed* of what he did, but I like that they chose to put some focus on it and not just have him walk off stage with the others.
My other favorite moment is Ariel’s release. Ariel brings out Prospero’s finery and helps him get dressed in silence, straightening his tie and adjusting his buttons. They truly look like lifelong companions right at this moment, who know that a goodbye is coming. He works his way behind as Prospero speaks, and when Prospero says, “Be free…” Ariel disappears. Prospero turns as if to speak to him, and he is gone. Love love loved it. No slow walk away, no lingering look, no last words. That’s how goodbyes happen. You turn around and the person is gone.
And then another interesting change, as Miranda joins her father on stage. She helps him put away his magic robes, and destroy his books. I liked that. Throughout the entire play he’s talking about how he’s done everything for her, yet when they are actually on stage together he’s usually telling her to sit down and shut up, Daddy’s working. So it was very nice to end on a father daughter moment.
Couple of missed opportunities? Prospero reveals Ferdinand and Miranda playing cards, not chess. I think Shakespeare said chess for a reason, since the play has been Prospero’s big chess game moving his pieces around the island. Perhaps this was their nod to the card tricks that Ariel has been slinging throughout the play? Then how about this? Why not show Miranda actually trying to teach Ferdinand a card trick? That would bring in the idea that Prospero has been teaching his daughter magic.
Another one, that Bardfilm brought up. What of Caliban? Do we get one last shot of Caliban, alone on the island? Nope. We get nothing. Caliban goes to clean the cell, and that’s it. I think that was a waste. I mean, they didn’t exactly focus on Caliban’s story at all so it’s not like it was necessary to button up that particular angle.
Overall I loved it, but I was never going to not love it. It runs over two hours even with the substantial editing that they did, and there are plenty of places where the trick gets in the way of the message. For example? When recounting the tale of Ariel in the tree, Prospero actually puts Ariel back in a tree and tortures him. In this case it’s one of those “lady in the box” tricks where Prospero twists his head around and around while telling the story, all with Ariel groaning in agony. They open the box to reveal Ariel tied in knots. So….what are we supposed to take from that? That Prospero periodically “reminds” Ariel of his debt by torturing him again? That certainly does not feed into the complicated love/hate relationship that I usually look for in Ariel/Prospero.
You know what? Now I wonder if I misinterpreted Ariel. I wonder if Ariel was just biding his time, waiting for the moment where he could disappear? That would be interesting. I’ll have to think about that.
That’s ultimately what I love about Shakespeare. There is so much depth that you can always find something fascinating, something new, something that makes you want to talk about it with others.
Shakespeare and magic is a natural combination. See it if you can, and if I haven’t spoiled it for you :). I can only hope that Teller is going to tackle A Midsummer Night’s Dream next!