Monday, September 15, 2014

The Tempest (A Noise Within’s 2014 Production) Theatre Review

Production photo by Craig Schwartz

The new production of The Tempest put on by the good folks at A Noise Within highlights the magical qualities of the play, while also hitting the right comedic notes and stressing the theme of forgiveness. There are some excellent performances here, particularly by Rafael Goldstein as Sebastian, Jeremy Rabb as Stephano, Kasey Mahaffy as Trinculo and Geoff Elliott as Caliban.

This production is visually compelling. The stage, upon the audience’s arrival, is covered with a dark tarp, with deep blues, greens and purples on the backdrop, giving the feel of the ocean. The opening storm scene is then done by cast members rushing in and lifting the tarp to create waves, with one person downstage, acting as the ship's figurehead, but also holding a model of a boat, which she then moves against the waves created by the billowing tarp. It might sound a bit odd, but it works quite well. It’s also interesting, because those figureheads were thought to ward off evil spirits, and of course spirits play an important part in The Tempest, particularly in this production. While this is done beautifully, it is in place of the dialogue of the play’s first scene, and so we’re not introduced to the men of the boat until they’ve landed on the island, and I do think we lose something by not seeing the men all together at the start.

The first lines of this production have Miranda (Alison Elliott) calling to her mother. Yes, Prospero is female in this version. I have mixed feelings about a female Prospero, because that obviously changes something regarding the relationship with Miranda, as well as the character’s motivation for bringing Ferdinand to their shores. I have to admit part of my reluctance to accept a female Prospero is the bad taste left in my mouth from that completely reprehensible film by Julie Taymor. That being said, Deborah Strang does a wonderful job in the role, embodying the character’s strengths as well as vulnerabilities. She plays Prospero as both mother and father figure to Miranda.

Of course, a female Prospero causes many changes to Shakespeare’s lines. For example, “Sir, are you not my father” becomes “Madam, are you not my mother.” Of course, Prospero’s next line in the play, “Thy mother was a piece of virtue and/She said thou wast my daughter,” no longer can work (and that is quite a funny line). And when Miranda says, “Had I not/Four or five women once that tended me,” she stresses “four or five,” which makes us think of Prospero as tending on her, as would a loving mother. And though most of the lines are changed to indicate Prospero’s gender, Ariel does still at one point say “That’s my noble master.”

Ariel is also female in this production (though, of course, that is less unusual). As I mentioned, this production puts emphasis on the magical aspects of the play, and so Ariel’s entrance is done as spectacle, with lights and sound, and a group of spirits spinning a large platform around. It works really well, and this production does much with that one movable platform. It seems that these other spirits serve Ariel, but when Prospero says “How now? moody?” she is able to dismiss the other spirits with a motion of her hand. A somewhat adversarial relationship between Prospero and Ariel (Kimberleigh Aarn) is established quickly.

Caliban, as played by Geoff Elliott, has a wonderful sad quality, steeped in the misery of his situation, and believing his home, his island, was taken from him by Prospero. Geoff Elliott’s excellent performance really makes us feel for this wretch, and we can’t hate him when he tries to turn on his master.

When the men arrive on the island, it is like the meeting of two worlds. This is stressed by the differences in wardrobe. The men are all in light-colored suits and hats, as from the 1920s. It would, of course, make sense that their dress would be slightly more modern, as Prospero and Miranda have been on the island for twelve years. All are in ties, though Gonzalo’s is a bow-tie, setting him apart from the others. William Dennis Hunt gives a delightful performance as Gonzalo.

Of the men, it is Ferdinand (Paul David Story) that we meet first. Interestingly, at his entrance, Miranda holds a parasol and Prospero dons sunglasses. It is almost as if they are anticipating the changes to come, adapting to more modern times even as Ferdinand first arrives. Miranda’s “What is ‘t?” (upon seeing him) is wonderful. She is clearly taken with him immediately, and when Prospero frees Ferdinand from a spell and he drops, she drops too, an empathic move that is a nice touch. Though of course a female Prospero makes Miranda’s lines “This/Is the third man that ere I saw! The first/That ere I sigh’d for!” unusable.

Miranda watches Ferdinand at the beginning of Act III, crouched and unseen. Interestingly, there are spirits on either side of her, who are also unseen, both by Ferdinand and by Miranda. Prospero then watches the unfolding scene with Ferdinand and Miranda from within the audience. Ferdinand has a delightful, youthful innocence, which works well when he is stacking the logs and talking of Miranda. He also has an air of honor about him, which is appropriate. I did want a little more sadness in his “I do think a king,” because he is saying he believes his father is dead. And Miranda’s reading of “I am your wife if you will marry me” is rather flat. There is something lacking in their chemistry.

There is a lot of humor in The Tempest, and this production garners much laughter from the audience (often because of the great humor inherent in Shakespeare’s text, but also due to particularly spot-on delivery of those lines – as Prospero’s deliver of “Shake it off” in Act I Scene ii). One inherently funny scene is that of the meeting of Trinculo and Stephano with Caliban. In this production, Trinculo is dressed in a loud, blue plaid suit jacket, and gives some very funny line readings, like on “What have we here.”

When we next see Stephano, he is wearing a homemade crown and is seated on a throne of sorts, having really settled into the role of master of Caliban – at least with the trappings and air of the role, if not the actual responsibility. He has a staff at this point, drawing an interesting parallel to Prospero. Also interesting is that he has a cape, but it is made from Caliban’s own garb, so in his newly adopted lofty role he has actually taken from his one subject, just as Caliban believes that Prospero has done on a much larger scale. Caliban of course does not make this connection.

The changing of genders in both Ariel and Prospero causes some minor problems. When Ariel gets Stephano to believe that Trinculo is speaking against him, it doesn’t quite work as well, because Ariel’s is clearly a female voice. And when Stephano agrees to kill Prospero for Caliban, he says, “Monster, I will kill this woman,” which is much more difficult to swallow than “Monster, I will kill this man.” After all, Stephano isn’t really a bad man, and in a fight with a man you’d worry more for his safety than for the other man’s. And I just don’t believe he would agree to kill a woman.

Instead of the play’s epilogue, this production gives us a silent moment with Prospero and Caliban, with Prospero waving her staff to free Caliban. While this is not in Shakespeare’s text, it’s actually a really nice moment, and fits in well with the themes highlighted by this production.

The brief set changes throughout the production are turned into musical interludes, with tribal rhythms. There is one intermission, coming at the end of Act II.

This production of The Tempest was directed by Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, and it runs through November 22, 2014. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., in Pasadena. There is free parking at the Metro Parking Structure.

(Note: I also posted this review on Pop Culture Beast.)

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