This is the McCarter production of The Tempest, which is best known for Blair Brown’s transformation of Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, into the Duchess Prospera. More on this later. The important issue here is scale and not gender.
In her twelve years as artistic director at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, the brilliant Emily Mann has produced a distinguished body of work which has enhanced McCarter’s position as one of America’s respected regional theatres. Balancing her seasons with a heady mixture of classic and contemporary work, she has also personally directed, and adapted and/or authored, a broad range of these works. Having directed her first Shakespeare last season, Romeo and Juliet, Mann now returns to the canon as director of McCarter’s current production, The Tempest. Unfortunately, the stylistic concept she has for Shakespeare requires an extraordinary level of performance and directorial insight which are not present here.
In case you’ve forgotten, this is the play in which Prospero, deposed as Duke of Milan by his brother Antonio twelve years earlier and sent off to die at sea, uses magical powers to cause his brother and others to be shipwrecked on the island he now rules so that he may avenge himself and arrange his daughter Miranda’s betrothal to the son of the King of Naples.
An intimate, minimal The Tempest is the aim here. The opening shipwreck scene has been scuttled. The balance of the script has been ruthlessly pared throughout to eliminate more than a quarter of it. Two featured characters, the mariners, and all of the Spirits save Ariel have been eliminated. The result of this and other diminishments is to make much of the first half most difficult to follow without prior knowledge of the play. Mann seems to acknowledge this with the insertion in the program of a full, page long plot summary.
The visual focus is tight. To reduce the sense of distance in the 1,077 seat auditorium, the first two rows have been eliminated in order to extend the stage beyond the proscenium. To suggest a thrust stage and create a more intimate playing area, the primary feature of Richard Hoover’s unit set is a series of rectangular translucent screens which reduce and narrow the playing area by surrounding it on both sides, to the rear and overhead. The screens extend upward from about six feet above the floor of the stage starting at the level of a narrow, all purpose upstage platform which is at the top of a wide series of open steps at stage right. Minimal use is made of the stairway and platform which are employed almost exclusively for entrances by the sprite Ariel. However, they further reduce the main playing area.. The set is completed by a modestly throne-like chair at stage left, two chests at stage right, and a couple of strips of black crepe covered by stage dirt across the front of the stage floor. Nothing is ever moved or lighted to denote changes of scene. The set is abstract and never suggests a specific setting. Thus, this essentially plays like a black box production. The physical production is completed by some lightening, a few late colored light effects and, at one point, strung bulbs suggesting chandeliers in lieu of the herein deleted Spirits. The costumes by Jess Goldstein are traditional and apt.
Given the size of the theatre, the arbitrary and sudden change in Prospero, even when the play is not cut, and the paucity of theatrical embellishments, Mann has set herself quite a challenge. However, an intimate, pared down Tempest is only one part of Mann’s aim. Another is to sexually transpose the exiled Duke into a woman, to be played by Blair Brown. It appears from this production that, rather than having a concept for Prospero as a woman, Mann is just providing an opportunity for Brown to essay a strong classical male role. There is nothing to suggest femininity in her portrayal. No one is seen to discriminate against her because of her sex. It would be difficult (although not impossible) to convey the latter without the questionable act of rewriting Shakespeare. As it stands, Brown makes a rather masculine Prospera, and could just as well be playing Prospero. She gives a solid reading of the text, but sometimes drifts into emoting by illustrating her words with broad sweeping, actorish gestures.
More distractions. Alonso, the King of Naples, is now Alonsa, the Queen of Naples. Since Antonio is urging Sebastian to betray his sibling as he has betrayed Prospera, there is some logic at work here. Caroline Stefanie Clay is totally feminine (and youthful in appearance) as the Queen, placing her performance out of synch with that of Blair Brown. However, lack of stylistic consistency among the cast is less of an issue here than it was in Mann’s production of Romeo and Juliet. As with Brown, Clay’s gender is never an issue. Clay and Ezra Knight who plays her brother are of African descent, but her son Ferdinand is played by Lorenzo Pisoni, who is Caucasian. Mann is a strong advocate of non traditional casting. Fairness, societal value, employment of the best talent available, and bringing new context and meaning to classic works are her goals. All but the last seem well accomplished here. It is only noted in the context of a production in which agendas are apparent and thoughtful interpretation is not.
The lovers Miranda and Ferdinand are nicely played by Rachel Matthews Black and Lorenzo Pisoni, but fail to give off romantic sparks. Ezra Knight as Sebastian, John Feltch as Antonio, and Yusef Bulos as Gonzalo are straightforward and competent. Julyana Soelistyo is sadly miscast as far too cutesy Spirit Ariel. She has to deliver much exposition at the beginning of the play, and she has a pronounced lisp which makes her very difficult to understand.
There is one scene that really works well. It occurs just before the intermission when Prospero’s slave, Caliban (Ian Kahn) encounters shipwreck survivors Trinculo (Cameron Folmar) and Stephano (John Keating), whom he mistakes for a god. Mann and her actors catch the low comedy as well as the satiric nature of their encounter. Unfortunately, some of the humor is drained from their post intermission scene because too much of it has been cut.
In total, The Tempest lacks clarity, scope and insight, and transposes gender without contextual meaning. Thus, we are left with a presentation that feels more like a workshop than a fully realized production.
It seems hardly possible that the brilliant and strong willed Emily Mann would do anything other than follow her muse and agendas. She has certainly earned the right. However, as a lover of theatre and talent, I wish that she would give herself a break and use all of the resources that Shakespeare has bequeathed to her. The result could be something very special.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare, directed by Emily Mann. Cast: Blair Brown (Prospera)/Rachel Matthews Black (Miranda)/Julyana Soelistyo (Ariel)/Ian Kahn (Caliban)/ Lorenzo Pisoni (Ferdinand)/Caroline Stefanie Clay (Alonsa)/Yusef Bulos (Gonzalo)/Ezra Knight (Sebastian)/John Feltch (Antonio)/Cameron Folmar (Trinculo)/John Keating (Stephano).
The Tempest runs through March 2 at McCarter Theatre in Princeton. Order tickets by phone at (609) 258-2787(ARTS) or online at www.mccarter.org.
Upcoming Events: Fiction, world premiere of new play by Steven Dietz, directed by David Warren. The subject is the limits of honesty and openness in marriage. Dates: March 25-April 13.