Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2008
After forty years of reading and seeing Shakespeare, I had finally decided that “The Tempest” was my favorite of his plays. This decision was cemented in May when I was privileged to see a truly wonderful Tempest –a student production at Williams College (yes, it was THAT good.) So I was excited to see what the Bakerloo Theatre Project, another group of young and innovative theatre artists, would do with it.
As usual, they have done a great deal. Bakerloo produces Shakespeare and other classics exclusively (their other production this summer will be Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard) and they routinely reimagine and reexamine the text to present unique productions. These productions are not traditional, but they are not “high concept” for the sake of being different. They are, with a nod to modern attention spans, generally considerably shorter than the originals, but they are never cut in a way that disrespects story or language.
Of course almost all companies make cuts in Shakespeare’s plays these days, and scholarship indicates that the published texts we inherited are much longer than anything that was ever performed. It was assumed that actors (and eventually directors) would choose the bits they wanted to present, which is exactly what Bakerloo and the Williams production did. Both presented versions of The Tempest that ran a hair over two hours, which is very speedy for Elizabethan drama.
But while the Williams production was bright and expansive, Bakerloo director William Addis has created a very angry production – loud, dark, and remarkably devoid of humor. In his program prologue, Addis notes that both The Tempest and The Cherry Orchard are plays that “cast an eye back to the past while focusing on characters who are moving decidedly to a new future.”
In the program, Addis also cites the following quote from David Bevington’s The Wide and Universal Theatr”: The island of The Tempest is [Prospero’s] stage. In its theatrical space he arranges his dramatis personae in accordance with his master plan , creates a storm to separate his characters into groups. Every action takes place under Prospero’s watchful eye and as a result of his direction.”
We know nothing definite of Shakespeare’s life, but, whether or not it is true, The Tempest is widely and popularly viewed as the last play he wrote (or at least the last he wrote alone), and much scholarly opinion has issued forth on the concept that Prospero is Shakespeare, that the playwright saw in his ability to create and manipulate words, actions, and characters on stage as analogous to Prospero’s magical ability to do the same in his own little island reality.
Addis has staged his production in the round, making the playing area literally an island in a sea of spectators. Here the focus is always on Prospero (Gwen Hervochon) who almost constantly hovers around the edges, as do many dumb and nameless spirits. As is always true in the theatre, nothing on Prospero’s island happens unobserved. Hervochon’s Prospero is in equal parts determined to use his powers and agents to move his life, and therefore the lives of all around him, on to their next phase, and angered at having to do so. Others, notably Miranda (Ugo Chukwu), Ariel (Joseph McGranaghan), and Caliban (Eric Chase and Lily Junker), are more than ready to move on. The group Prospero brings to his island via the titular tempest – the politicians Ferdinand (Rosa Fernandez), Alsonso (Marsha Harman), Sebastian (Mack Exilus), Antonio (Sarah Murphy), and Gonzalo (Christopher Maxwell), along with the drunken clowns Stepahno (Joe Mihalchick) and Trinculo (Christopher Thomas Gilkey) - are mere pawns in his game.
You will have noticed that many women are playing male roles and vice versa. My companion remarked to me that she wasn’t sure whether the gender bending worked or was merely a distracting gimmick. Casting across gender always raises issues that the director and actors must together decide how to address. Are the actors to attempt to appear to be members of the opposite sex through dress, padding, adoption of various gender stereotypes, etc.? here, are we supposed to see Prospero as a man or as a woman? Hervochon looks and sounds and moves like a woman and her dress is androgynous. She states she is Miranda’s father, not her mother. And Chukwu is plainly male – no attempt is made to give him feminine curves. Early on he wears something that could pass as a skirt, but later Ferdinand (played by a woman) helps him change into trousers and a sport coat. Is Miranda then being revealed as a man? If so, why doesn’t Ferdinand simultaneously reveal herself as female? Or are we receiving some sort of commentary on how love trumps gender in human coupling?
The Miranda/Ferdinand cross-casting distracted me the most because they are the romantic duo and I wanted to know what kind of a couple I was rooting for. But Fernandez and Chukwu played their scenes with so little passion that they could have both been eunuchs. Addis ignored the delightful flirtation and burgeoning passion between these two, and consequently many opportunities for a hearty chuckle at the expense of young love/lust are lost. (Oooo, there’s a title for a play: Lust’s Labors Lost!) I really had no problem with Prospero being played by a woman or Ariel, whose gender is barely determined anyway, by a man. And I enjoyed Junker and Chase as a kind of conjoined twins Caliban – half man, half woman; half human, half monster; each and both; single and dual. They tumble artfully about, first one in the ascendancy, then the other.
Hervochon’s Prospero is indeed a very angry person. Well, who likes change? We mere mortals know it has to come, and we know there is nothing we can do about it, but we don’t LIKE it. I remember when my father was dying, and The Tempest is all about dealing with the inescapable and ungraspable truth of our mortality, a psychologist asking me how I would like to change me current situation, as if it were possible to make a plan based on my answer. I said: “I want my father to be well again and never die and for life to just always go on the way it used to. And that’s impossible.” But that is the anger and despair Prospero feels, but unlike me he is actually the catalyst for the inevitable change he dreads. He knows the change must come and he makes it so.
I was very puzzled by how unfunny the scenes between Stephano, Trunculo and Caliban were. I didn’t realize it was possible for them to be performed so solemnly, I mean this is funny stuff – a bunch of dim-witted clowns stumbly drunkenly through the island paradise imagining themselves kings and conquerors. Even when they dressed up in funny clothes I didn’t laugh.
So, this is a somber Tempest about the inevitability of change and the constant natural cycle of the new and young (Miranda and Ferdinand) supplanting the old and dying. Addis and his design team have created a dark and moody setting – in fact I found Tony Tambasco’s lighting a tad too dark in many spots, failing to illuminate actors at key moments (or were the actors failing to hit their marks?)
Bakerloo does not go in for big sets, and here we have nothing but one riser/runway on the bare floor of Academy Hall and eight beautifully printed panels designed by Aaron Smith. They represent ocean waves in a lovely deep teak green. (If you peek at their reverse side you will see the autumnal red and russet pattern of falling leaves for The Cherry Orchard.) In keeping with the somber theme, Justin Honard’s costumes are in a drab palette of neutral.
There is a lot of music in this production, and Adam Mathias is credited with creating “original music.” I assume, since no other composers are listed in the program, that everything heard during the course of The Tempest is Mathias’ work. It is haunting and dissonant but beautiful and effective. Many of the cast, notably Harman (who is looking especially lovely this year), sing very well indeed, which is good because some of the music is a cappella, and there are many tricky harmonics involved.
Before the show began I was chatting with a member of the company, who remarked that they had been rehearsing The Cherry Orchard” that afternoon and that it was “very funny.” I didn’t think much of that statement because Chekhov himself called his plays comedies and I personally always find them hilarious. But as I drove home it dawned on me that I had made what was possibly an erroneous assumption about the Bakerloo season.
While The Tempest defies categorization as a comedy or tragedy – it is both and neither – I had assumed that it was the lighthearted selection for 2008, while The Cherry Orchard” would be more serious and sober. In other words I had pegged The Tempest as the comedy and The Cherry Orchard” as the tragedy, or at least the drama, for the season. Could I be have gotten things completely bass ackward?? Stay tuned. I see The Cherry Orchard” on July 26...
The Bakerloo Theatre Project's production of The Tempest will be performed July 11, 12, 17, 18, 19, 24, and August 1 at 8 p.m., with matinees on July 13, 20 and 26 at 2 p.m., at Academy Hall at the corner of 15th Street and College Avenue on the RPI campus in Troy, NY. The show runs two-hours and ten minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 12 and up, although you should make sure your teens are familiar with the plot before you bring them along. Tickets are $16 each, or $25 for a season pass. Visit www.bakerloo.org for information about discount tickets and group rates.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008