Calming the Tempest Within
Olney Theatre Center, Olney, Md.
Thursday, July 31, 2014, Middle of Lawn
Directed by Jason King Jones
Kudos to scenic designer Charlie Calvert. That ominous storm cloud gathering itself up on the near horizon and looming toward us sitting on lawn chairs at Olney Theatre Center's outdoor stage was a most effective scene setter for William Shakespeare's The Tempest. When the clap of thunder and flash of lightning erupted in the middle of the preshow minstrels' shtick, we thought it was the real deal.
Prospero (Craig Wallace, left) and Miranda (Leah Filley) look upon the shipwrecked Ferdinand (ALexander Korman) in the Olney Theatre Center's production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest, which uses umbrellas as a visual motif in designer Charlie Calvert's set. Photo by Stan Barouh, Olney Theatre Center.
It was, instead, a soundtrack and the start of a production that kept us engrossed with director Jason King Jones's journey into the psychoses of the characters involved as much as their predicaments. And true to the magic of Prospero's island, we remained dry throughout; that storm cloud vanished into thin air leaving not a rack behind.
Really, kudos to scenic designer Calvert. The stage is painted bright blue, and its backdrop is a wall of opened white umbrellas. Umbrellas remain a motif throughout the play. The Neapolitan court brandishes black umbrellas, Ariel carries a luminous umbrella with strings of lights. Umbrellas provide the hangers for Prospero's wardrobe that Trinculo and Stephano plunder, and umbrellas take the place of logs in Ferdinand's task, as he and Miranda hang them on lines.
At the start of the play, those lines hold up sheets serving as the ship's sails that the sailors battle during the tempest leading to their shipwreck. Amid the mayhem, magically it seems, Miranda (Leah Filley) appears, sitting on a little child's chair looking into a snow globe where she is watching the brave vessel being dashed to pieces. She has about her old rag dolls, perhaps retrieved by good old Gonzalo (Alan Wade) when he secured Prospero's books upon the duke's and daughter's banishment from Milan, or maybe Prospero fashioned them from rude materials found on the mysterious island whereupon they landed. Now Prospero's enemies have come ashore that very island, passing by chance but landing thanks to the faux shipwreck he fashioned with his magic.
Craig Wallace plays Prospero as a man with a serious chip on his shoulder. He has never gotten over his banishment, and we sense his bitterness is double-sided: the betrayal he endured at his brother's hand, and the subsequent hardships his daughter suffered, being pulled away from four or five women who tended on her, placed in "a rotten carcass of a butt" guaranteed to drift aimlessly if not sink, and spending her childhood on a desert island with only Caliban for a playmate. In their 12-years-worn ragged remnants of Renaissance finery (costume design by Pei Lee), Prospero and Miranda remain castaways: Prospero's magic can influence the environment, put people to sleep, and manufacture visions out of thin air, but it cannot physically rebuild Milan.
Wallace's Prospero is paranoid and quick-tempered. Even the slightest notion that Miranda is not paying attention to him ignites his ire, and he snaps viciously at Ariel (Julie-Ann Elliott) when she reminds him of his promise to free her of her labors. Caliban's assault on Miranda was no doubt serious (he would have peopled the isle with Calibans), but while Filley's Miranda is yet inclined to show Caliban kindness, Wallace's Prospero is as bothered by Caliban's betrayal ("I have used thee—filth as thou art—with humane care and lodged thee in mine own cell") as the assault itself. He keeps Caliban chained and so wracked with cramps, Ryan Mitchell plays him perpetually bent over. With this Prospero, the revenge he had planned for his brother was probably far worse than cramps.
Yet he plans to couple his revenge on his brother with a different kind of comeuppance for Alonso, King of Naples (Ian Levalley), for his role in the subjugation of Milan: to have Alonso's son, Ferdinand, marry Miranda and thus form an alliance with Prospero's restored dukedom. But before doing so, Prospero feels he must impress his power upon Ferdinand. Alexander Korman uses the play's environmental context to add dimensions to the 2D character of Ferdinand. Imagine that you have survived a shipwreck in which you are certain your father drowned, you are lost on a desert island, and suddenly the most beautiful girl you've ever seen appears. She likes you, too, and, hey, she's fun to be with. Surely, this is a dream. Thus does Korman play his scenes, as Ferdinand navigating a dream state.
Caliban, on the other hand, is navigating a nightmare state. Wearing blue face paint and dressed in blue Arabian garb and a blue barnacled skull cap, Mitchell's Caliban is the exact same color as the stage floor, implying he is a man made of the earth's elements. His bile comes from the constant abuse he suffers at the end of Prospero's big stick, and that plus alcohol causes him to so easily transplant his loyalty to Stephano the butler (DanVan Why, who, in a nice touch, drapes a white towel over his forearm as he drinks from his wine bottle). However, Caliban remains sensitive to the insults from Trinculo (Jacob Mundell); he is essentially an abused puppy.
Ariel is, allegorically, the wind: she is a gentle breeze and a hurricane, a being of stillness that on the instant can turn tornado. Sycorax, the island's previous resident and Caliban's mother, imprisoned Ariel; Prospero frees the spirit from captivity but enslaves her to service, and Elliott becomes more than peevish with Prospero when she reminds him of his promise of true freedom. "My liberty!" she yells at him. "Dost thou forget from what a torment I did free thee?" he demands of her. "No," is her simple reply, and most Ariels are wilting at this point. Not Elliott; she shouts that at Prospero, too, determined to earn his respect not just his condescending care. "Thou dost," Wallace shouts back: "and think'st it much to tread the ooze of the salt deep, to run upon the sharp wind of the north, to do me business in the veins o'th'earth when it is baked with frost." "I do not, sir": Ariel is not backing down, and she's obviously growing tired of Prospero's lecturing. Only when Prospero reminds her of Sycorax's reign and, by implication, points out the suffering he's putting Caliban through does she back down, but begrudgingly. And then she changes course. She turns to flattery. "That's my noble master! What shall I do? Say what? What shall I do?"
This dialogue's primary purpose is to serve as exposition to the play, but director Jones and the company use such moments to tease out the psychoses of the key characters. This is most pronounced in the longest expository passage in the canon when Prospero recounts to Miranda their history. The scene opens with Miranda imploring her father to save the ship from wreck, and in this speech Filley reveals glimpses of the psychological makeup of Miranda's character. She is a maturing teenager (15, by the play's chronology) yet a child holding on to her dolls. Both her intelligence and childishness are the product of being educated by her most learned father on a deserted island where their relationship was perpetually fixed when she was just 3 years old.
However, being a teen coming into her own sense of womanhood, she shows an independent streak and, being daughter of Prospero, an ireful edge: "Had I been any god of power, I would have sunk the sea within the earth or ere it should the good ship so have swallowed, and the fraughting souls within her." Rather than in a pliant tone, Filley delivers this line with defiance, arguing herself to be morally superior to her father. Miranda certainly honors her father; she also takes delight in rebelling against him, so quickly revealing her name to Ferdinand and subsequently winking at the sin. However, her father, invisible as he watches, is winking at her sin, too. Wallace gives us a conflicted Prospero here, as most fathers are with their daughters reaching matrimonial age. But Miranda is more than a daughter; she has been his lifeline on the island.
In Jones' staging, as Prospero recounts his history, the members of Naples' court sit with their backs to the audience at the rear of the stage. On mention of his brother Antonio, Paul Morella stands up and presents himself to Miranda. It is as if Prospero is creating a visual pageant for her, much as he would later for her and Ferdinand, though those characters are mythological gods (and in this production, giant puppets). If Miranda is actually looking at Antonio in this vision, it adds an interesting complexion to her comment to Ferdinand that she has not "seen more that I may call men than you, good friend, and my dear father." She's not sure she can trust the accuracy of her father's visions. But she surely recognizes Antonio in the final scene, for she approaches him, takes his hand, and looks warmly upon him. Forgiveness and reconciliation is innate in this Miranda, as she has already shown in her continuing care and affection for Caliban.
With Antonio, though, this might be the same dangerous naïveté that Prospero displayed a dozen years before. Morella is a deliciously malevolent Antonio. His portrayal of a cynical, aloof, opportunistic man, unrepentantly sinister while seemingly loyal, reminds us that Antonio was created by the same playwright who gave us Iago earlier in his career. At the end, when he hands over his emblem of dukedom to Prospero, Morella's Antonio not only doesn't display any sense of conciliation, he gives Prospero a look that says, "I know you know what I'm thinking, but I don't care; I will try to get the dukedom back."
While Morella mines the villainy of Antonio, Christopher Richardson explores the duplicitous nature of Sebastian, brother to Alonso. Is he slow to see into the conspiracy Antonio proposes in murdering the king and Gonzalo as they sleep, or is he slyly ensuring that Antonio is not setting him up as a traitor? There is an easy bonhomie between the two, but Sebastian also shows equanimity toward his brother (an awkward silence passes between them when the king awakes just as Sebastian has raised his knife; Alonso suspects his brother, but he would rather believe Sebastian's fib of hearing wild noises that caused him to draw his knife). In the final scene, Sebastian's lines serve as seconds to his brother, and they seem to rule in tandem.
Caliban (Ryan Mitchell) listens to the music of the isle as Stephano (Dan Van Why) and Ariel (Julie-Ann Elliott) watch in the Olney Theatre Center's production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Costume designs by Pei Lee. Photo by Stan Barouh, Olney Theatre Center.
So, we can't be certain they will all sail off to happy-ever-after-land, but we do know that Prospero's own tortured path to redemption is complete. His turning point comes, clearly, when Ariel describes how she would feel pity on the men caught up in Prospero's spell "were I human." Prospero is ashamed, realizing that a spirit of air is, indeed, showing more human virtue than he has. "Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th'quick, yet with my nobler reason gainst my fury do I take part: the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance," he says; in a way, he is acknowledging that, indeed, Miranda has proven the morally superior of the two as she already practices what he is now preaching. The fury notably is still there. He gets in a dig at Antonio "whom to call brother would even infect my mouth," but he forgives his "rankest fault—all of them." When he orders Caliban to escort Trinculo and Stephano to his cell, Prospero removes the servant's manacles. "As you look to have my pardon, trim it handsomely," he says, and Caliban stands up fully, the cramps gone. "Ay, that I will," he replies, eyeing Prospero with new respect. "And I'll be wise hereafter, and seek for grace." He will do as Prospero, finally, has done.
Prospero's parting from Ariel promises to be most touching of all. And it is, literally. With the arrival of these other humans on the island, Arial has seen love in many shades, and she can't help connecting certain dots, including Prospero's reliance on her even as he uses pet names for her. "Do you love me master? No?" is one of the play's most enigmatic moments; here, she puts the question to Prospero as she watches Ferdinand fussing over Miranda. At the end when Prospero sets her free, he is sitting on the chair at the back of the stage, emotionally spent. Elliott's Ariel approaches him, true affection in her aspect, and she touches Prospero's cheek—she could love him, were she human, and had he always been humane—and then she rushes off stage.
The only ones remaining in Prospero's path to redemption are the audience. And so he steps to the front of the stage, speaking the epilogue. "As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free." And we do.
August 14, 2014