Last night I went to the first performance of Cutting Ball Theater’s new production of The Tempest, directed by Rob Melrose. It is a three-actor chamber version, but it is in a sense a very traditional production, in that Shakespeare’s plays have always been altered and adjusted to fit the mood and means of the time. I think this basic malleability of theater is the reason (in addition of course to great poetry and deep characterization) that Shakespeare became enshrined as the English writer par excellence, rather than say Spenser, whom Shakespeare's contemporaries would probably have nominated for the post; great though it is, The Faerie Queene is always going to be an elaborate, many-stranded allegorical Renaissance epic, written in semi-archaic though gorgeous language in a strict stanza.
I shouldn’t give the impression that Cutting Ball’s production is an outrageous variation; by and large, if you wanted, it’s possible to see it as a fairly straightforward telling of the story, with the virtuoso twist of using only three actors. The central idea here is a triangle between Father, Daughter, and the Young Lover who takes her away from him, and in the opening and closing scenes Prospero is presented as a therapist and Miranda his patient, subject to both hypnotherapy and classic lie-on-the-couch talk therapy. The whole idea works surprisingly well, with surprisingly little alteration necessary to the play, particularly in the long back-story scene between Prospero and Miranda at the beginning, after the opening tempest, when he tells her who she is and how they came to the island; and it creates fascinating resonances among the characters and situations.
The idea of the father struggling to give up his control sheds an interesting light on some scenes; for example, when he denounces Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda, we can see that she is instead a willing participant, and the scene becomes about a father’s fear of (which includes his repressed fantasies about) his daughter’s growing sexual awareness, and how those feelings will lead her away from him. The advantage to using three actors is that as they become other characters, you see their basic situation in a new light: for instance, Ferdinand and Miranda are both losing their fathers, and when the father is played by the same actor, that brings the point home; when the father becomes Stephano, the drunken leader of Trinculo/Miranda and Caliban/Ferdinand, you get another lurid funhouse twist on the triangle.
David Sinaiko plays Prospero, Alonso, and Stephano; Caitlyn Louchard plays Miranda, Ariel, Gonzalo, Trinculo, and Sebastian; and Donell Hill plays Caliban, Ferdinand, and Antonio. Though occasionally, as I always do when I see Shakespeare performed, I wanted something a little more or a little different (perhaps a little more majesty from Prospero, a little more unworldliness from Ariel) I’m going to give all three a big compliment, which is that they speak the lines as if these were things the characters would actually say in this way, and as if they knew what they meant – many’s the Shakespeare performance I’ve heard where the actors have memorized the lines, and they come out sounding only like lines they’ve memorized. The performers distinguish clearly among the characters, using different voices as well as adjustments to their costumes (though perhaps they should rethink the short green tunic dress for Ariel, since it comes off as a bit Peter-Pan-like at times, and I think the use of an Italian accent for Alonso is a mistake; it sounds too much like a vaudeville funny voice and it raises the question why no one else from the same town has an accent).
Donell Hill is black, which lends an interesting resonance to his Ferdinand/Caliban function as The Other (as well as to moments like the one when he as Sebastian denounces Alonso for giving his daughter to an African and thereby losing her in that distant land). When Prospero says "this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine" he points to his own heart rather than to Caliban, to whom the line officially refers; it's an interesting twist and a nice example of the fluid identities among the characters, and it completes the father's process of giving his daughter away. I'm glad they avoided the recent fad of presenting Caliban as a representative of native victims of European imperialism. I’m not saying there’s no element of that, but as a through-line interpretation it just doesn’t work for me: for one thing, Caliban is clearly servile by nature, as evidenced by his ready submission to Stephano as his new master when he’s fed up with Prospero. He also (in the standard interpretation) tried to rape Miranda when she was a little girl, which I think we can all agree makes him basically unsympathetic, and he is lazy and can’t be trusted with liquor – for me the notion of Caliban as aborigine just gets too close to minstrel-show racist stereotypes to be considered true to Shakespeare or the character or the themes of the play. It seems obvious to me that Caliban is basically an earth spirit (in contrast to Ariel), so like the earth he is often dull, heavy, and dirty, though also capable of moments of astonishing beauty (the most famous example being his speech in Act 3, scene 2, "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises . . ." and ending "when I waked, I cried to dream again"). Shakespeare did that thing that makes him Shakespeare: he overwrote the part so that the richness of the character bursts through any thematic framework; and as with Shylock, the character has grown richer and more unanswerable with our current experience of history.
As usual with Cutting Ball, the set, the videos, and the ambient sounds are stylish and appealing. The raised stage looks like the bottom of a swimming pool, and there is a desk (holding the chess set and a model of a ship) and a couch such as you might find in a therapist’s office. The backdrop is a large engraving in the style of Dore of the sun setting over the ocean; surrounding that is a thick border of shiny silver foil. (Michael Locher is the set designer, Bessie Delucchi did the costumes, Heather Basarab the lighting, and Cliff Caruthers the sound.)
Personally, I’d much rather see an inventive take like this than a more straightforward production; nothing against such productions, but at this point in my theater-going (and my life with Shakespeare) I’m just not going to see a production of one of his plays where I think they’ve nailed everything. So I might as well spare myself the time and money and wait for shows that cast a different light on what I think I already know.
The movement of the play as an inner psychological struggle to allow one’s child (and her spirit, her Ariel) her freedom makes the effect of this production surprisingly elegiac; though The Tempest is often presented as Shakespeare’s farewell, this is the first time I really felt it that way.
The production runs through November 28 at the Cutting Ball's home stage, the Exit Stage Left.