Friday, March 28, 2008
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.