Simply Magical Shakespeare
Taffety Punk Theatre Company, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, D.C.
Friday, February 6, 2015 (Front center in studio theater)
Directed by Lise Bruneau
News flash: The Tempest is a comedy.
In fact, in its Riot Grrrls (aka all-female) production, Taffety Punk reveals William Shakespeare’s last solo composition to be one of his funniest plays. Thanks to Director Lise Bruneau’s seriously respectful approach to the script, The Tempest emerges as a rich comedy of characters, and she has assembled a cast that plays each line with tack-sharp individuality. Good God, even I didn't know that The Tempest was so funny or this good, and it's always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, one I’ve seen 11 times on stage prior to this production.
Isabelle Anderson as Prospero in the Taffety Punk Riot Grrrls production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Photo by Teresa Castracane, Taffety Punk.
Let’s get past the all-female-cast thing right away, shall we? This is not stunt casting. The Washington, D.C.–based Taffety Punk Theatre Company founded the Riot Grrrls in 2008 in response to the city’s Shakespeare Theatre Company producing an all-male Romeo and Juliet. The Riot Grrrls proved such an artistic and critical success, Taffety Punk has included a Riot Girrrls production every season since, providing women an avenue to play many of Shakespeare's great characters too often barred to them because of traditional notions of gender casting. Though we can appreciate the doubling of characters in this production—such as Tonya Beckman playing Caliban and Arial, Teresa Spencer playing the Neapolitan king’s son and brother, and Toni Rae Salmi playing Gonzalo, the noble philosopher who dreams up a utopian state on the island, and Stephano, the drunk butler who would be king of the island—we lose sight of the fact that women are playing the lords at about the one-minute mark of the play (i.e., when they first appear). Costume Designer Jessica Moretti dresses the lords in modern suits while the islanders bear more exotic wear, including Prospero who resembles a magi in robes and twisted fabric fillet around her head.
But in Isabelle Anderson’s performance, Prospero reminds me more of a Jewish father stereotype than some Melchoir. I won’t contend that was her choice rather than my own prejudices, because the point of her portrayal is that this Prospero is a genial man and a devoted father with a current of tragic sadness coursing underneath his public demeanor. The operative word in that last sentence is underneath. Prosperos in many productions of late wear their grudges on their magical coat sleeves, displaying vexations that range from nagging irritation to schismatic anger. However, the play settles firmly into the genre of comedy when Prospero is himself a lighthearted character engineering the play’s humor. And the play is better for it: more entertaining, yet deeper, too, as we see in evidence with this production and Anderson’s performance. She adds several nuanced comic touches to her Prospero: a shrug here, a double take there. As Miranda (Amanda Forstrom) worries about the “brave vessel … dashed all to pieces,” as she thinks, at the hands of her father’s conjured tempest, Anderson’s Prospero stands behind Miranda displaying a proud smile, a look that says, “Yep, I’m a darn good magician, don’t you know.” After Miranda helps Prospero “pluck my magic garment from me,” Anderson sets the cloak on the ground and says, “Lie there, my art” as if it were an excited Labrador.
Over the past 50 years, at least, the trend among directors of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies has been to focus on the plays’ dark undertows rather than their funny overtones (a trend that, if not reversing, is thankfully being arrested by a new generation of text-centric directors). With Prospero, that means playing up his obvious perturbation at his brother’s betrayal while diminishing his obvious benevolent side. However, Shakespeare had no problem keeping Prospero in balance. It’s human nature to have contradictory emotions; when I’m at my most depressed, I may be sitting atop an explosive temper keg, yet I’m more likely to bend over backward to help people, including strangers, than when I’m in a state of self-satisfaction. Additionally, recent productions of The Tempest have drifted into serious seas and even listed toward the tragic in part due to the identification of Prospero as a colonizer and Arial and Caliban as enslaved natives. Shakespeare, though, didn’t see Prospero that way. Prospero wants nothing more than to get his Dukedom back and go home; his primary incentive on the island is survival for his daughter and himself. In fact, Shakespeare makes fun of the two characters who would colonize the island (Stephano and the jester, Trinculo).
In her direction, Bruneau refuses to let the play get bogged down into any conceptual, political, or psychological metaphorical arc—even that suggested by her own dramaturg, Catherine Ritter. “Prospero laments the loss of time, of power (his Dukedom, but also his control on the island), even the ‘loss’ of his daughter in marriage,” Ritter writes in her program notes; “yet through those losses, Shakespeare investigates the silver linings that go along with them. Prospero gains knowledge and wisdom, he regains his power in the greater world, he gains a son in Ferdinand—even in the ebbing of his ‘little life,’ every time a company uses its art to conjure his tempest, he gains new life again.” For Bruneau, though, the silver is not in the lining but at the center of this production. Her spare treatment of the play presents it as a good yarn with a romantic core surrounded by a supernatural element, including two spirits, played by Francesca Betancourt and Emma Lou Hébert, who move crablike among the other performers throughout the play. The specter of tragedy and the threat of evil are always kept at the edges.
The specter of tragedy is personified in the role of Alonso, the King of Naples (Aaryn Kopp), who spends the bulk of the play sadly searching for his presumed-drowned son, Ferdinand. It’s tragic for him, but for us? Hello! We’ve already seen Ferdinand very much alive and very much hitting on Miranda (though he, too, is sad over the presumed drowning of his father). Caliban could be seen as a tragic character, too, but Shakespeare didn't necessarily see him that way since he assigned Caliban to the Three Stooges-like comic subplot.
The threat of evil lies in Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio, who is part of the king’s party and urging the king’s brother, Sebastian, to assassinate Alonso. However, Shakespeare has established Antonio and Sebastian as comic characters in their witty repartee before Antonio broaches the assassination plot, and Antonio's effort to clue in the slow-to-understanding Sebastian is, in this production, a continuation of their comic relationship. I’ve now seen a string of Tempests with actors who have discovered the finer strokes with which Shakespeare drew Antonio, but I have seen no finer portrayal of this rich creation than this production’s Esther Williamson. Slack-postured and moving with the casual jauntiness of a man way too sure of himself, Williamson elevates the entire third scene of the play—the king’s party exploring the island—through her eyes and expressions as she reacts to Gonzalo’s ramblings, monitors the king’s consternation, and glances meaningfully at cohort Sebastian. You can’t take your eyes off Williamson, not only because her performance is so mesmerizing but also because if you do you will miss a keen subtext in her portrayal of Antonio.
She again nearly dominates the final scene, though she spends the bulk of it sitting forlornly off to the side. This production has unearthed a secret in Antonio, revealed when Prospero mentions the loss of his daughter. “A daughter?” Alonso responds, and Kopp darts a glare at Williamson’s Antonio, who shrivels. This apparently is the first time Alonso had heard that the onetime Duke of Milan had a daughter, and he realizes that it wasn't just Prospero whom Sebastian put to sea. It’s a great touch supported by the text. A second fine moment comes as Miranda, marveling at the lords and the “brave new world that has such people in’t” stands in front of Antonio—whom she doesn’t know—and is looking at him as she says “How many goodly creatures are there here!” The pained look in Williamson’s face is this production’s tear-jerking moment.
Yet, Williamson is one-half of a dynamic pair. Spencer plays Sebastian, Alonso’s brother, as a mirror-reflection of best pal Antonio in mannerisms and cynicism. They are wingmen to each other, and Williamson and Spencer fall into an easy groove delivering their asides insulting Gonzalo and Alonso. Spencer merely removes her jacket to play Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, but through her acting she’s almost unrecognizable with her head-high posture and young-stud nobility. That demeanor simply melts upon his seeing Miranda, especially as Amanda Forstrom plays Miranda with no hint of reserve in her adoration of this “thing divine” that “carries a brave form.” It’s unbounded puppy love these two share, yet Spencer’s Ferdinand knows his royal place, too. As Prospero bestows his daughter unto Ferdinand and immediately warns the prince to take heed that he not untie Miranda’s virgin knot “before all sanctimonious ceremonies may with full and holy rite be ministered,” Ferdinand replies with a speech of high-terms invoking honorable love and classical references. Spencer gives us the impression that this is a well-studied or at least carefully crafted response by Ferdinand. “Fairly spoke,” Anderson’s Prospero says with an admiring look. But when Prospero levels yet another warning later in the scene (after Miranda and Ferdinand get to snuggling a little too intensely), Spencer’s Ferdinand isn’t so ready with his second answer. “I warrant you, sir, the white cold virgin snow upon my heart abates the ardor of my liver.” Yeah, that one lands with a thud, he knows it and Prospero considers it dismissively before letting the matter go with another shrug and a resigned, “Well.”
This benevolence in Prospero might seem counter to his demanding relationships with Arial and Caliban, but that comes down to how you perceive the spirit and the native islander, respectively. Beckman rocks all your expectations in these two characters by portraying them as childlike siblings. Arial, dressed as a genie, is a playful pre-teen with more than a touch of attention deficit disorder. She describes her handiwork as if describing her accomplishments in art class, and she pouts for her freedom like a kid forced to do her homework before being allowed to play. When Prospero asks if Ariel has forgotten “From what a torment I did free thee” when the witch and previous island resident Sycorax bound her in a pine tree, Ariel quickly replies, “No.” “Thou dost,” Prospero presses, and where tradition gives this interchange a charge of conflict, Beckman and Anderson play it as a fact: Arial has forgotten, though she pretends she hasn’t. That’s just the nature of this air(head) spirit, and Prospero gives the expository speech to restore her memory yet again.
If Arial is daddy’s little princess, Caliban is the bully brother. Wearing a feather-tipped, mop-top wig and canvas sack of a gown, Beckman's Caliban squats with a face scrunched up into a pout and beats himself over his shortcomings, a habit Prospero interrupts in their last scene together. When Prospero introduces Caliban to Alonso’s company as the son of the powerful witch Sycorax—in a manner in which he might introduce the son of an accomplished doctor or high-level government official—Caliban puffs up and sticks out his tongue at Alonso. Interestingly, this Caliban not only can see the spirits, he on occasion holds their hands as he worries about both the storm and Prospero's cramping spells. The spirits show no antagonism toward him, either, and, in fact, when he says they hate Prospero as much as he, we can’t be sure in the spirits' blank expressions that this is not true.
Ferdinand (Teresa Spencer, left) and Miranda (Amanda Forstrom) in Taffety Punk's Riot Grrrls production of The Tempest. Photo by Teresa Castracane, Taffety Punk.
In every Shakespearean performance we’ve seen by Beckman, she brings incredible insight and singular personality to each and every line. She actually reaches a high point with the drunk Caliban. If alcohol enhances natural behavior and attitudes, then with Beckman’s Caliban that means ultra-lethargy and simmering cynicism. She gets more laughs from the way she seethes her lines and looks with bottomless irritation at Trinculo than the jester earns with his jokes. In the text, Arial and Caliban share one scene together, as Arial punks Trinculo by speaking for him while Caliban presents the case to Stephano for killing Prospero; here, the two spirits fill Ariel’s role in that scene.
The 55-seat theater is arranged with peninsulas of seating on either side of the main play space so that the action takes place amid the audience and even spills up into the center grandstand seating. Against a backdrop of a painted mosaic-like giant wave—a motif that also decorates the stage floor (scene design by Jessica Moretti with Daniel Flint as scenic artist)—sits a scattering of platforms and a jungle gym horizontal ladder, all draped in hemp nets. It reminds me of a kitsch poolside Tiki bar in a rundown Myrtle Beach resort. The horizontal ladder serves as ship's bridge for the boatswain in the opening scene's tempest and as part of Prospero's "poor cell" as well as providing a means for elevating Ariel and the other two spirits. It also exemplifies the kind of clever humor this production employs when Forstrom’s Trinculo, fearing the oncoming storm and deciding he might have to slip under the gabardine covering the cowering Caliban, sticks his hand up between the bars and matter-of-factly says, "There is no other shelter hereabout."
It’s a magic formula that always does the trick: Shakespeare’s script, pure and simple, focused acting, and directing that gleans character and plot insights from within the text. What you get is The Tempest that is satisfyingly funny and richly rendered, and that’s no delusion.
February 11, 2015