The Cutting Ball Theater opened its 2010-2011 season with a three-actor version of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Taking place in a therapist's office at the bottom of a swimming pool.
This was perhaps the most unusual directorial conceit of any Shakespeare production I've ever seen -- and I thought it was terrific.
(The usual disclaimers apply: I'm on the literary committee at Cutting Ball, think they are a fab bunch of people, and got invited to the gala opening of this production -- paid for my ticket, but still.)
As director Rob Melrose sees it, The Tempest is full of plots and subplots that reflect one another. To take an obvious example, Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban plot to overthrow Prospero in a bumbling, comic fashion; while, fifteen years ago, Antonio and Alonzo successfully overthrew Prospero in a way that wasn't funny at all. Or, Prospero must relinquish his control over his daughter Miranda and his sprite-servant Ariel... both of whom are young, feminine figures who have grown under Prospero's care, and now clamor for freedom. Melrose writes in the playbill: "Our three-person Tempest hopes to illuminate the many connections between the characters, encouraging a reading of the play similar to Freud's reading of fairy tales, where some characters are treated as aspects of other characters."
This Tempest is a slippery production that allows resonances and double meanings; sometimes it requires you to hold two contradictory ideas in your head simultaneously. Are the characters on a Mediterranean island, or in a therapist's office? (The early scenes imply that Prospero is a psychoanalyst and Miranda is his patient -- she hallucinates the tempest that opens the play, writhing about on the therapist's couch. But this conceit seems forgotten for large chunks of the show.) Is it a story about a middle-aged patriarch (Prospero) who must relinquish his daughter (Miranda/Ariel) to the young man who loves her (Ferdinand/Caliban)? Or could all of the characters even be aspects of one person, and the whole play be the story of a man who must learn how to integrate his id (Caliban) with his superego (Ariel)?
I knew that this concept had the potential to confuse the audience -- even to confuse me, because I do not know The Tempest by heart. I've never studied it, and had seen only one prior production, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2001. (Tangent: When Julie Taymor's movie of The Tempest comes out next month, people will make a big deal that Helen Mirren plays the lead role as "Prospera." Well, OSF did this nearly 10 years ago. And it turned Prospera's usurping sibling into "Antonia.") Nonetheless, I didn't reread the play before going to Cutting Ball. I truly believe that good theater should be accessible to anyone, even if it is "experimental" theater, even if the audience hasn't "done their homework."
But I wasn't confused by the Cutting Ball production, except in the aforementioned sense of having to hold two contradictory ideas in my head simultaneously -- which is, I think, intentional confusion, a workout for the brain, rather than incoherence. The brilliance of Shakespeare's play still came across and the doubling threw certain themes into high relief, such as "is Man inherently good or inherently evil?" And I finally realized why the last words of the play are "set me free"; no other line could be more appropriate.
Much has been written about how The Tempest is Shakespeare's last play, and Prospero's magical artifice is a metaphor for the playwright's artifice, and Prospero's decision to renounce magic represents Shakespeare's farewell to the stage. The Cutting Ball production adds another layer by suggesting that therapy = magic = theatre. When I realized this, I was moved, perhaps because my roommate is in training to be a therapist and she and I have had many fruitful conversations about the intersections between therapy and theatre.
This is a very clever production, yet what amazed me the most is the way that the cleverness reinforced the themes and the emotion of the play, rather than detracting from it. One could say that Melrose has "deconstructed" The Tempest, yet "deconstruction" implies something far colder and more clinical than this production. Melrose doesn't neglect the hilarity of the Trinculo and Stephano scenes, or the sweetness of the Miranda and Ferdinand ones -- though he does imbue them with other layers, due to the double-casting. For instance, there's a scene in the original script where Trinculo hides with Caliban under his overcoat when it starts to rain. When Stephano comes across them, he is confused to see four legs sticking out from under the coat, shivering from the cold. But Melrose stages this in such a way that you wonder: are they shivering, under that coat, or are they having sex? Because Trinculo is also Miranda, and Caliban is also Ferdinand, and Stephano is also Prospero...
There are two especially dazzling moments in the second act. First is the wedding masque Prospero stages for Ferdinand and Miranda. In this production, the masque is a fragmented, sped-up version of the play we have just seen: there are audio and video snippets of the actors reciting key lines from earlier scenes. Second is the climax, which is the only moment in the entire production when one of the actors must "have a conversation with himself" (i.e. switch rapidly back and forth between two roles, playing both sides of a dialogue). It's amazing, on a technical level, that Rob Melrose was able to adapt The Tempest for three actors and only require someone to "have a conversation with himself" the one time. But it's even more amazing on an emotional level. Along with the masque scene, it reinforces the themes of coming to terms with the different aspects of one's self, integrating the many roles one plays into a coherent whole. These scenes make everything fall into place.
Still, I realize that this production might best be understood by people who are familiar with other experimental theater, or have an affinity with abstract and dream-like art. (In his director's note, Melrose name-checks David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, and Haruki Murakami.) If I were younger, I think I would have complimented the production by saying "it was really cool how the actors were able to each play so many different roles." Well, it is cool. But the point of the doubling is not just to prove that Cutting Ball's actors are virtuosos, or to do the play on the cheap--there's more to it than that.
Still, much credit is due to actors David Sinaiko (Prospero/Alonso/Stephano), Caitlyn Louchard (Miranda/Ariel/Gonzalo/Trinculo/Sebastian), and Donell Hill (Caliban/Ferdinand/Antonio). Sinaiko speaks the Shakespearean verse with great ease and naturalness; his is a more accessible, low-key Prospero than one might find in other productions. Louchard excels in a very difficult assignment: five different roles, and each one of them a character who is caught in the middle between Sinaiko and Hill. She makes each of her characters distinct, using different voices and physicalities, and also has a lovely singing voice in Ariel's songs. I found Hill most convincing when he played the genial Ferdinand (he also played the genial Mr. Martin in The Bald Soprano at Cutting Ball last year, again opposite Louchard) and didn't think he had quite enough twisted rage in him to be an ideal Caliban. But then, maybe that's the point of this production: every young man has potential to be both Caliban and Ferdinand.
I found Cutting Ball's three-actor Tempest weird and delightful, rich and strange, in the way that theater should be... and particularly in the way that any good production of The Tempest should be! O brave new world, that has such theatre in it! It is rough, but real, magic.
The Tempest has been extended at Cutting Ball through December 19.