Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Tempest

Tonight I saw The Tempest at The Steppenwolf and, in general, I liked it.   Above all there are two things that really struck me about the performance:  one that I really loved and that opened my eyes, one that left me deeply disappointed.  Good news first.

Depth.  It's so simple we never even think about it, but another aspect of the genius of theater is depth -- simple, literal, spatial depth.  Film has no depth in this sense.  Light is insubstantial and it is laid against a screen -- necessarily thin.  Even shadow puppets (another medium of shadows, light, and screens) imply depth, but film is predicated on translucence, and the physical presence of film is only millimeters thick.  The stage and staging of The Tempest, under the direction of Tina Landau, however, insists on depth.  The stage is largely empty and from the house we can see all the way back to the cinderblock wall, every drop, every traveler, and ever set piece is partial -- pipes and short curtains, narrow screens -- so that we are provided units of measurement in space.  In a brilliant scene Ferdinand moves a pile of wooden girders from up right to down left where they remain in a pile for the rest of the show.  And by which we can record movement in the space.  Most moving, perhaps, was the amazing moment in the masque when several booms with large hanging flowers descend over the stage, fixing a beautiful grid upon the scene.

Additionally in group scenes, of which there are many, the Ms. Landau makes engaging use of lines and clumps.  In the scene, for instance, when the King and his cohort first find themselves on the island they form a kind of circle facing in all directions and examining their surroundings.  Then, when confronted by Prospero at the end, they are in almost a straight line as Prosero maneuvers around them.

The terrible moment in the play was the very last one, but it was so bad it's almost infuriating. Of course the reason it is so frustrating is because it came so close to being brilliant.  Here's the final speech of The Tempest, so I never forget it:

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Amazing: the speech continues to perpetuate the story while not only acknowledging the audience but demanding their activity, and not the "audience participation" of becoming actors or storytellers, but truly participation as an audience -- applauding and completing the story by this collective imagination.  Frank Galati does this speech beautifully.  He begins by removing his coat and his hat, setting them off (on that pile of wood!).  He crosses casually centerstage and glances back at the costume pieces like he might have left Prospero there.  He looks right at us and the lights have changed a little, very clear and simple -- a man raised on a platform.  He says the final words, asking for the applause of the audience "Let your indulgence set me free." There is a miniscule pause (one second max) then a sound cue and a blackout.  

This is perverse and cowardly.  The stakes have been made very clear, if we do not applaud and even more importantly do not send him to Naples all is lost.  He has forsworn his magic: this is the only way.  What should happen, what I was certain would happen, is that he stands there waiting until we applaud.  The blackout and "swoosh" sound cue ends the play before it's over. The end of the play is everyone agreeing to send Prospero home, or -- and Shakespeare, must have understood somehow that this was a possibility -- we decide he should be confined on the island forever.  This production takes the audience out of creative act of the theater and it broke my heart.

My heart is strong enough to remember a good night at the theater, the visuals really are stunning and there are some good performances, if you get a rush ticket you should go, but you should try to applaud before they cut to black.

(Be forewarned: there are vests in this production of a Shakespeare play.  If you are sensitive to such things, you should stay at home.)

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