The Great Vexation
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014, H–108&109 (center stalls)
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Ferdinand (Avery Glymph) and Miranda (Rachel Mewbron) watch as Juno appears to bless the couple in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Below, Miranda listens to her father, Prospero (Geraint Wyn Davies). Photos by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Exactly what vexes Prospero in William Shakespeare's The Tempest, we can't be sure. It could be a gnawing need for revenge, bordering on the pathological. It could be advancing age, bordering on senility. It could be fear of encroaching mortality, bordering on phobia. It could be he's tired of eating seafood and pignuts. All we know is that Prospero himself says he is vexed, that his brain is troubled, calling whatever vexes him both "my weakness" and "my infirmity."
Directors tackling the play and actors taking on Prospero thus are faced with a range of choices concerning the character, starting with his age. At the beginning of the play Prospero describes to his daughter, Miranda, how 12 years before his brother Antonio usurped him of the Milan dukedom with assistance from Alonso, the King of Naples, resulting in father and 3-year-old daughter being put to sea, where they landed on this deserted but magical island. Based on that information, Prospero could be in his early 30s. At the end of the play he says that "every third thought shall be my grave." That makes him sound as old as Lear, four score or more. I've seen him played as a doddering grandfather and as a viral middle-aged father, and in temperament as a Gandalfian wizard and as a teeth-grinding despot. When Derek Jacobi played the role for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982 (which I did not see), he played Prospero as a man who knows he has cancer but doesn't let anybody else know (including the audience).
The role also tends to be handcuffed by a popular notion that Shakespeare was portraying himself in Prospero, the great charmer creating magical theater and pageants, announcing his retirement to return home to Stratford-upon-Avon. Never mind that Shakespeare collaborated on three more plays (maybe like Cher and Brett Favre, he just couldn't stay retired). My take is that if Prospero is autobiographical, it's more psychological than artistic or nostalgic. Shakespeare was getting close to 50 when he wrote The Tempest, and if he was going through his own male menopause, then he understood how the passage of middle age turns even us nice guys into crotchety old crabs seeing injustice in the slightest slights and grave stupidity in the most innocent of mistakes.
We see such a portrayal by Geraint Wyn Davies playing Prospero in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of The Tempest. Matchmaking Miranda (a scintillating Rachel Mewbron) and Alonso's son, Ferdinand (Avery Glymph who, as Miranda herself reports, "carries a brave form"), Prospero purposely establishes obstacles to the young man "lest too light winning make the prize light." That's good logic, especially for a doting dad; yet one can't help feeling that Davies's Prospero enjoys employing his magical powers over the strapping Ferdinand, as if to say, "You may have mightier muscles, but I'm still stronger than you, young man." At the moment he gives his daughter to the prince, Prospero alternates blessings with dire threats should Ferdinand "break her virgin-knot before all sanctimonious ceremonies may with full and holy rite be ministered." In Davies's playing and through Mewbron's and Glymph's reactions, this scene is hilarious as Davies shifts in a heartbeat from benevolence to bluster and back again. It is, in fact, the funniest scene in a generally comedy-rich production.
Director Ethan McSweeny firmly sets The Tempest on romantic comedy mode while, departing from his track record at STC, focusing on the text and acting rather than visual effects and conceptual trappings to carry the play. Lee Savage's set is an island of sand with the broken bow of a wooden ship serving as Prospero's "poor cell." The background is a solid wall that depicts the sky through the changing daylight of the play's two-hour passage of time (lighting design by Christopher Akerlind). In the wings are theater box seats that appear to have been salvaged from the set of the McSweeny-helmed Midsummer Night's Dream of two years ago, which he placed in a decrepit Regency theater, the woodland fairies becoming theater ghosts. McSweeny also times the play to Shakespeare's era, with Costume Designer Jennifer Moeller dressing the Neapolitan court in classic Renaissance Italian fashions and the island's residents, including Prospero, in tatters and rags.
Though McSweeny doesn't layer on an extra-textual concept with The Tempest, this production's connection with his Midsummer Night's Dream is apt: both plays deal with the supernatural, both deal with applicable magic, and in both stagings, McSweeny likens supernatural magic to theatrical craftsmanship. And with both, he arrives at uneven results.
Arial (Sofia Jean Gomez) flies over the stage hoisted by a most visible rope wrapped around her waist—the obvious rigging even draws laughs upon her first appearance. Coupled with Gomez's petulant tween-ager presentation, this "delicate" spirit of air is a somewhat clumsy Arial, bouncing into the ship mast and off the hull before landing and then stomping across the sand like a kid who hates having to leave his PlayStation to take out the trash. When Prospero frees Arial at the end of the play, the rope is suddenly cut and falls to the stage and Gomez walks off, which to me is a mixed metaphor. Her henchmen spirits are walking dead, perhaps the ghosts of shipwrecks, wearing white frayed dresses and pants and undertaking their tasks with stone stares. They do, however, create cool tableaux when they are waiting around for orders, including one spirit forming a ship's figurehead on Prospero's cell.
Prospero's pageant for Miranda and Ferdinand, on the other hand, is beyond awesome: it is awe-inspiring. The spirits carry onto the stage huge masks draped in fabric and large hands controlled by long poles. Iris and Ceres have torsos, too, but Juno is just a giant face—easily 12 feet high—with huge hands that sweep over the stage to bestow a gentle touch of blessing upon the young lovers (James Ortiz is the puppet designer and coach). The giant Juno holding Miranda's face tenderly in her hands is a heartbeat-skipping moment of theater. McSweeny likes to build elaborate worlds for his plays at STC, so the simple set for The Tempest is, at first, surprising to see. Turns out he's just setting us up, reserving the wow! visual for Prospero's pageant. This is not only wise stagecraft, it might be equal to the awe Shakespeare himself inspired in this play's first audiences, creating spectacle not out of technical effects but through a little imagination and big puppetry.
The production's other moment of spectacle is aural: Caliban's description of the island. Playing the native islander and Prospero's slave, Clifton Duncan wears only dingy white African-style knee pants and a chain crisscrossing his torso; except for some white splotches on his torso and forehead, he has no otherworldly makeup, appendages, or physical attributes. The mere fact he is a man of color seems enough to make him a misshapen monster to the Neapolitans. Along with his lilting verse-speaking skills, Duncan builds his character on a strong, virile presence that fuels the enthusiasm with which he either curses Prospero or praises Stephano, the king's drunk butler who washed ashore on a butt of sack. As Stephano and his companion jester Trinculo scramble in fear at the music of the isle, Caliban laughs delightedly. "Art thou afeard?" he asks almost incredulously. "Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises," he continues in a glow of great contentment. The blocking has put Stephano and Trinculo in the wings, leaving Duncan alone on center stage to recite the speech in all its magical musicality. Some of Shakespeare's great speeches are well served when extricated from the action and presented as an art form in and of themselves, and this is one of them.
The rest of the Trinculo-Sebastian-Caliban subplot is presented with in-your-face, bawdy humor. Throwing-up is a running joke. Liam Craig plays Trinculo, though dressed in the classic motley suit of a jester, as a second-banana to a night-show host opposite Dave Quay's Stephano, who seems to be channeling Robin Williams. Stephano may say he was the man in the moon come down to earth, but Quay acts more like he's come here from Ork. It plays well with the children in the audience—and this is STC's family-oriented presentation for the holiday season—but for me, Davies's Prospero, Mewbron's Miranda, and, in particular, Gregory Linington's Antonio are far funnier with their nonmugging delivery of Shakespeare's verse.
Linington, in fact, nearly steals the show, so subtly funny and slyly malevolent is his Antonio, Prospero's usurping brother. He and Sebastian (David Bishins), brother to Alonso (C. David Johnson in a perpetually grouchy mood), dexterously quip their insults of the ever-talking Gonzalo (Ted van Griethuysen) after their company has made it ashore from their supposed shipwreck. It is one of Shakespeare's favorite comic devices: two clever wits commenting on the action in asides, a device he used as early as Henry VI, Part Three. He perfected it by the time he wrote The Tempest—especially as they aren't really asides but meant to be heard by Gonzalo who tries to ignore them—and when acted out well, as they are here, it is great sophisticated humor. Too many productions condense this scene or give the jesting a cruel streak as a way of establishing Antonio and Sebastian as sinister. Keeping it intact and lighthearted as this production does illustrates Shakespeare's dramatic genius, for only when Linington's Antonio suggests to Sebastian that they assassinate the sleeping king and the rest of his entourage does the villainy appear that Prospero had earlier reported of his brother.
This Antonio is utterly denuded at the end, stunned into stewing silence by Prospero's sudden appearance and obvious manipulation to not only get his dukedom back but establish an alliance of marriage with Naples. Not only that, Prospero accomplishes all this by using the very study of sorcery the usurping Antonio of a dozen years ago had thought was Prospero's weakness (of course, to accomplish this reading of the character, McSweeny cuts Antonio's jesting lines in the last scene).
That I'm seeing this in Linington though he merely stands to the side of the stage blankly staring at the proceedings is a credit to the depth these actors dive into Shakespeare's lines. Another similarly ascendant performance is turned in by Mewbron as Miranda, adroitly capturing a teenager—marooned with her father on a desert island for 12 years—emerging from daddy's baby girl to lustful woman in the time it takes most girls to cross that chasm: about two seconds. Mewbron's Miranda carries an old rag doll in her first scene; she quickly tosses it away the moment she sees Ferdinand. In the final reunion, Mewbron cleverly jumps on the fact that, other than Prospero, Trinculo, and Stephano, the only name mentioned among the courtiers is Gonzalo's, by King Alonso. Upon hearing the name of the man whom her father had said was directly responsible for their survival after being abandoned at sea, Mewbron's Miranda casts a look of admiration upon the man who is addressed by that name.
Antonio is not aware that far worse had been in store for him. We get a sense of Prospero's intended revenge when Arial expresses her own sympathy for the entranced courtiers, thus moving Prospero to virtue rather than vengeance. "They being penitent, the sole drift of my purpose doth extend not a frown further," he says. That "sole drift," in Davies's beyond-crotchety demeanor—both when he reports how "my project gather[s] to a head" and when he forgives his brother and Naples—indicates that what he had in store for Antonio was much more than the cramps and pinches Caliban suffers. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just another menopausal moment for this middle-aged Prospero.
McSweeny has one last visual spectacle in store for us when, on stage, Davies dresses in his duke's outfit—not just hat and rapier, as reported in the text, but britches, boots, and brocaded waistcoat with ruff collar. He's obviously been saving those rich weeds these 12 years, ever-anticipating his return to the glory we now see him in (and thanks to the courtiers' rough wandering over the island, Prospero is now the only fresh-looking lord). This is obviously the first time Caliban has seen him dressed thus and whoa! he's beginning to realize that Prospero can do more than cramps and pinches. Instead, Davies's Duke Prospero unlocks the chains around Duncan's torso and shakes his hand. This also is the first time Ferdinand sees his future father-in-law dressed thus, and whoa! Glymph's Ferdinand puffs up his chest as he introduces Miranda to his father as "daughter to this famous Duke of Milan, of whom so often I have heard renown." And, of course, the courtiers are seeing a duke they thought was dead, and he is exactly as he looked 12 years ago—the hair a bit whiter, perhaps, but yet more whoa!
Prospero has performed the mightiest trick known to man: through patience, hard work, careful planning, and a bit of help from the stars, he accomplished his grand plan, and in doing so he recaptured his youth. What needs he with his books and staff anymore? What needs he his cloak which, we noticed way back in the first act when Miranda helps him take it off, is a great weight on his shoulders? He's not retiring, he's going to enjoy the power he yet has while keeping constantly in his mind the reality that his next home will be his grave, whenever that moment comes. His great vexation has passed: he's 50, and he still has it, perhaps better than ever.
December 18, 2014