Friday, March 28, 2008

Magic island

Benjamin Evett, Marianna Bassham and John Kuntz ponder the music of Shakespeare - and the spheres - in The Tempest.

Ah, the Actors' Shakespeare Project; I never know quite what to say about this intrepid group's productions. I want to like them, because they're always intelligent, and the ASP itself seems like a bunch of genuinely nice folks. And I have to admit that when it comes to delivery of the text, the ASP is always quite strong; actually, The Tempest is not as well-spoken as Henry V or Love's Labour's Lost was, but it's still a model of articulate (though not lyrical) delivery. The troupe is even consistently inventive in its designs (particularly its lighting designs), with The Tempest probably standing as its strongest visual statement yet. This time even the troupe's signature use of existing spaces pays off handsomely: the high, elegant hall in which The Tempest unfurls, with its late-Victorian feel and vaguely nautical gallery, provides just the right atmosphere for director Patrick Swanson's music-hall-magician conceit: the show for once actually feels like it belongs in its assigned space.

So what's not to like?

Well, to most local critics, not much; The Tempest, like most ASP efforts, got sterling reviews, even on a national level (the Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout, who must be a buddy of Alvin Epstein's, once again dropped by and penned a rave). But I'm not much puzzled by this kind of thing anymore - after all, there's no tradition of great Shakespeare in Boston (and perhaps nowhere in America); I don't think the ART has ever delivered a really convincing production, and the Huntington's only memorable entry in the competition was Love's Labour's Lost a few seasons ago. Raves were recently delivered to the irritating Richard III down at Trinity, and I remember critics doing handsprings for the so-so As You Like It that toured at the Wilbur a few years back. And let's be honest - even though this is supposed to be the "Athens of America," and we're supposed to know from Shakespeare, none of our leading critics has much feel for the Bard per se; they are, instead, generally most excited by productions that are either blessed by some ditzy academic or that bend Shakespeare to this or that current trend (this is called "bringing the play to life!").

To be fair, this kind of thing is fairly muted at the ASP, although they do project an air of the Cambridge-style gypsy. The sense of 70s-era commedia can get a little relentless, ditto the rigid feminism, and there's a positive horror of the courtly refinement endemic to so much Shakespeare (and so The Tempest's masque must perforce be a burlesque). Within those crunchy limits, however, I suppose the ASP is about the best around. I certainly never wince at their productions; I just always leave a little dissatisfied.

Which is how I felt, in the end, with Patrick Swanson's directorial conceit (and make no mistake, despite its supposed focus on the actor, the ASP has slowly allowed directorial concept to seep into its productions). At first, the music-hall production design - paired, for some reason, with a sea-shanty score - felt wonderful, particularly in its opening gambit, in which a model ship rode a "tempest" onstage (via a bit of conjured canvas). And I was intrigued by Ariel's equestrienne costume (if not by Caliban's half-hearted sideshow-freak get-up, at right). Other design elements - the footlights, the trap-doors, the gauzy upstage curtain - felt just right, and Swanson enlivened several scenes with clever bits of stage magic.

Still, the idea wore thin - or rather, it somehow never grew, in the end, to encompass Shakespeare's rough, transformational magic. The same critique might be made of Alvin Epstein's performance as Prospero (at left). The actor is a living legend, with a resume that includes such landmarks as the original New York production of Waiting for Godot, and he certainly has the aura of prickly wisdom that only genuine experience can provide. But Epstein lacks the largeness of presence and purpose to fully embody Shakespeare's last great role - he didn't even attempt a sense of the character's arc, which should move from vengeful temptation to a mode that Auden onced called "beautifully diminished." You never felt that this Prospero was particularly dangerous, or that anything about his redemption was at stake - as with his Lear, Epstein threw tantrums, not tempests. And it didn't help that the actor was unsteady with the text; several pregnant pauses punctuated his performance, and he even patched the famous "Our revels now are ended" speech with a garbled scrap from Hamlet.

Elsewhere the performances were problematic in different ways. No one in the court brought much spark to their scenes (and I'd argue Gonzalo and Sebastian were miscast), and Mara Sidmore made a standardly rugged postfeminist Miranda (Jason Bowen brought more romantic charm to Ferdinand). But the clowns - the reliably bitchy John Kuntz and a grizzled, improbably swashbuckling Robert Walsh - were consistently fun, and Ben Evett's Caliban, after a damped-down opening scene, seemed to loosen up in their company. But then there was Marianna Bassham's Ariel - Bassham is one of my favorite local actresses, but I have to say that once we got used to her apparel (which I admit put her in a kind of straitjacket), her Ariel proffered far more calm than charm, and to little theatrical return. At a talkback after the performance I attended, the actress mentioned that she saw her Ariel as "a professional" - and suddenly I understood why the concept hadn't worked. Ariel is a tricksy spirit, not an MBA candidate. Can a "professional" Puck with a blackberry and laptop be far off?

Well, let's hope not. But am I, in the end, being too hard on the ASP? Certainly many think so, and I have to admit that spending an evening with this troupe always, at the very least, leaves me pondering some part of the play with renewed or refreshed insight. Perhaps this Tempest is not such stuff as dreams are made on, as it first promises; still, at its best it gives delight, and at its worst it hurts not.


  1. I share the same feelings about the Actor's Shakespeare Project as you and I'm glad to see somebody call them on things... since we know that all of the local critics practically coo whenever they get mentioned. I really WANT to root for them and think that they're really great, but I have persistent nagging doubts that keep getting in the way. To be truthful, they have made me wince once or twice- that Macbeth was pretty damn bad and the Caesar a few years back was a jaw dropping show of ineptitude from start to finish. But when they're on, they're on- I still think that for me personally the Titus from last year was the best thing I've seen locally produced on a Boston stage in the three years I've been here. I also really love the fact that they seem to be serious about the idea of maintaining a core ensemble- how much of that has happened by accident and how much was planned I'm not sure, but it's a great idea and one I wish more local companies would follow.

    I loved the design work on the Tempest. Just loved it- the transformation of the room at the Cambridge Multicultural Center to the Music Hall setting of the play was complete. The trapdoors, rope tricks and smoke and mirrors of the production were wonderful, and the opening presentation of the ship aloft on the cloth made for a marvelous start. What I question is exactly why the setting was necessary- I don't think it particularly did anything for the production other then to serve the stagecraft and Prospero's tricks. It felt, very, dare I say it? ART. There, I said it. The subtext of every classic at the aforementioned theatre of course is, "Come see our clever redaction and distillation of a great play!" And here I have to admit that I do enjoy that sort of thing on occasion... but the point of the ASP's productions was, I thought, to get away from the entire post-modern mentality of deconstruction and director driven theatre.

    Another problem I had with the setting was that for a play set on an island, in the middle of the sea filled with spirits of the wood and earth… and that opens with a bunch of half drowned sailors, it all seemed very clean. There's something jarring to me about hearing actors declaiming their fate at being castaways while walking around in fancy outfits that look as though they've just come from the cleaners. I'm glad to see that the ASP didn't fall into the politically correct trap of treating Caliban (and the play) as representations of the evils of Colonialism (a tiresome theme if there ever was one) but playing Miranda as if she's one step from hanging out with Carrie Bradshaw and the girls strikes me as false, and just once I'd love to see a production that emphasized the true level of inequity between Miranda and Prospero. Epstein never seemed in command the way Prospero ought to of the whole play even once in this production, and it seems unfair to harp on his dropping lines, but it was happening at the performance I witnessed also. I missed any sense of danger in his performance, which really bothered me. Still, the production had a lot of heart and a very sweet quality to it, and on the balance contained many memorable moments.

    I'm truly excited to see the ASP do Duchess of Malfi next year- I've read it and think it's great but have never seen it done; the question with any Shakespeare Troupe is what happens when they run out of good plays to produce by Sweet William; it will be interesting to see where the ASP goes next.

  2. It does seem sometimes that a memo went out about ASP and the critics have all fallen into line. I agree with you that the design work on Tempest was wonderful, but never actually illuminated the play itself - in fact, I'd argue it distracted us, slightly, from the play's underlying themes of forgiveness and redemption. Just btw, however, the actors SHOULD, in fact, be wandering around in costumes that look like they just came from the cleaners, as Gonzalo says in wonderment: "...our garments, being, as they were, drenched in the sea, hold notwithstanding their freshness and
    glosses, being rather new-dyed than stained with salt water." As for Duchess of Malfi - I'm interested to see it, too, although I confess I've never seen it brought off successfully. Perhaps the ASP's ingenuity will liven up its charnel-house monotony.

  3. I should have known you'd come back at me with those lines. Fair enough, and I've seen it done with and without them- it still bugs me that nobody gets their perfectly coiffed hair the slightest bit mussed. It's more a question I think of how one views the play: magic and wonder (which this production comes down on the side of) or a vicious power struggle in which the Tempest (metaphorically speaking) sets the characters and the island topsy-turvy, bringing the high to their knees (Alonso and the court) and elevating the weak and dispossessed, (Caliban, like Quasimodo during the Feast of Fools has his moment as King) all orchestrated by Prospero as the master game player. I would at this point like to add that if I seemed harsh in my response to The Tempest it wasn't my intent- there's a an awful lot to like in it. As noted, I'm a pretty tough critic, and what bugs me probably wouldn't bug your average audience member. I do, on the other hand hate the idea of no real critical response or dialog about the play being carried on, which seems in danger of occurring. I actually recommended the show not only to out of towners who were searching for something to see the other weekend but also to friends at work... so how's that for an endorsement?

  4. I'm afraid I can't agree with you that The Tempest should be interpreted as "a vicious power struggle," because I simply can't imagine generating much suspense over whether Antonio's (or Caliban's) plots will succeed; the magical/theatrical frame is simply too powerful, too secure (and those lines you don't like are part of that frame). I'd also just point out that your dissatisfaction with the magician's tricks of the ASP production is rooted in the sense that circus magic doesn't go far enough, isn't deep enough, to do justice to the enchantment of the play. That's hard to reconcile with your vision of a pitched battle on those yellow sands.

  5. While stationed at the Presidio in Monterey in the early 1990's, several of us went up to see the Duchess of Malfi at the ACT in San Francisco.

    Little did I know at the time that I would be seeing Robert Woodruff's production. We didn't really know what to think afterwards. Of course, Randy Danson in interviews always mentions her death scene, (right in the footlights, naked, wrapped in rubber tubing, and drenched in blood,) and I have the privelege of sharing the memory with her. (We were seated pretty much dead center stage.)

    It seems every production of his at the ART the last few years contains some part of that production.

    Maybe an ASP production will help me see the play in a different light.

  6. The director who I spent several years working under and learning from right out of undergrad also saw that production- (the ACT Duchess of Malfi) she found it extremely misogynistic as I remember her telling me. She always wanted to direct “The White Devil” which is another great and sadly neglected classical text. I saw a film of The Duchess of Malfi in undergrad and it made quite an impression on my brain at the time- I go back to it periodically (the text that is) and it’s still got a lot of power.

    But back to the Tempest. My point in all of this is that you can go a lot further in emphasizing the power struggles in the play, which is something I missed among all the clever trickery. I’ve seen it done with a lot more menace. There's never really any doubt in this one where things are going, is there? The ASP production is firmly on the side of wonder, whimsy and the charming- even the members of the court don't come off that badly in it, and Caliban less monstrous then humorous. The magic is cute rather then terrifying. Then too, Prospero never seemed very in command of anything in this version. There's a real tendency to paint Prospero and The Tempest with a slightly whimsical brush due to the fact that people are obsessed with the idea that the play is (supposedly) the last full work by Shakespeare. In turn, everything loses the edge it might otherwise have when we view Prospero as a sweet grandfatherly figure rather then one of power that is literally holding the entire island and everyone on it in his grasp. For me this undercuts the conflict in the play, and how Prospero has turned the tables on Alonso and company- the tormentors are now the tormented to dance at his whim. He's the master of all, and make no mistake, we have a happy ending by his choice and his choice alone- having learned the virtues of forgiveness through his sufferings. He doesn’t need to free Ariel or the court, and really up till the end treats most everyone in a pretty unpleasant manner.

    Maybe "Vicious Power Struggle" was the wrong way to phrase it, but I think the question of power, who has it, and how it is wielded is for me one of the most interesting themes of the play... as it is throughout nearly all of Shakespeare's work. Anyway, I'm really just riffing at this point on the ideas of the play... which is what is so beautiful to me about Shakespeare- that it can be viewed (rightly or wrongly) through so many lenses and subject to such reinvention. Let's agree that the play had many fine moments but on some level we both found parts of it unsatisfying.

  7. I think in the end, Dan, you're largely responding to the fact that the "court" in the ASP production was probably its weakest facet, and that Evett wasn't quite enough of a brute, and that Epstein was disengaged from the whole thing. These are all accurate insights into the production, but if they were corrected, I don't think they'd quite add up to the "power struggle" interpretation you're proposing. Yes, there should be a struggle within Prospero, which was missing at the ASP, but I don't buy that we should ever feel much threatened by the play's villains; my view is that their schemes are laid out as more of an essay on the human problem, if you will, rather than a real dramatic evocation of said problem, a la the first half of Winter's Tale. (I probably should add that I've directed The Tempest myself, and so have thought quite a bit about all these issues - of course, maybe I came to the wrong conclusions!)

    As for Duchess - the text is undoubtedly powerful, but both times I've seen it, its horrors have become repetitious (and I suspect that the Duchess herself, despite tons of stage time, is actually underdeveloped as a character). Of course charismatic performers, judicious editing, and striking production design could put the play over - I just worry it's one of those dark pieces of actor (and director) catnip that's secretly more tedious than people imagine.