Ever since Baz Luhrmann transported Shakespeare’s starcross’d lovers to modern-day Verona Beach in 1996, the chic thing to do in theater has been to transpose The Bard’s plays into anachronistic settings. Unfortunately, this seems to frequently result in form without function, wherein plays are produced in updated settings for no apparent reason and with no connection to the source material. (For example, I once had the keen bad luck to sit through a remarkably unfortunate production of Troilus and Cressida . . . IN SPACE!!!) It was with this in mind that I approached The Company OnStage’s production of The Tempest, which director L. Robert Westeen chose to set in a 1950s-era asylum.
Upon entering the theater, I was immediately struck by how skillfully and thoughtfully the set had been designed. The walls, which were allowed to show their age in cracked and splitting woodwork, had been painted that seasick shade of puce that can only be described as “hospital green,” and the stage was hung with three translucent plastic curtains that would be alternately pulled aside or spread out to create different rooms for the hospital. It managed to simultaneously appear both antiseptic and unsanitary, precisely the feeling that should be evoked from a time when regulations and appropriate practices were sorely lacking within the mental health care community.
Square in upstage center was the clearly labeled exit, which began to function as a metaphor for how the inhabitants of the asylum were ultimately trapped there by their own devices. In each scene, Prospero, Ferdinand, or any of the other “inmates” could have easily opened the door and walked to freedom, but they were so overcome by their inner turmoil that they didn’t even notice it. It was only in the end, when Prospero chose to forgive his brother Antonio, that he was able to free himself.
Half an hour before the official start of the show, the cast was already onstage, enacting a preshow designed to give the audience a glimpse into asylum life. In character as patients, hospital staff, and visitors, they moved about the stage, variously working, interacting, and exposing their particular psychoses. While an effective and intriguing device, it set up a few expectations that the show was unable to fulfill.
Thanks to my familiarity with the text, I identified several characters right away. Prospero (John Kaiser) was obviously the elderly gentleman with his nose in a book, Ariel (Mai Le) the wide-eyed girl by his side, Ferdinand (Kaleb Babb) the mournful-looking young man whose bandaged wrists betrayed a recent suicide attempt, and Miranda (Helen Rios) the beautiful young woman who rushed to Prospero when she entered.
However, I had immediately chosen Michael Raabe for Caliban. He wandered the stage, childlike and incoherent, vacillating between unprovoked violent laughter and equally violent tears, obviously deep in the throes of improperly treated schizophrenia. It was exactly the performance one would expect from the “monster” of the Island, and Raabe’s erratic behavior and imposing size made him the obvious choice. When he appeared on stage later as sassy, clownish Trinculo, his articulateness was viscerally jarring. His performance, although delightful, was completely incongruous with the image the preshow has created. Where the madman from the top of the show had gone and how he fit in as an aspect of this affable, playful, witty jester I still do not know.
The Tempest begins with King Alonso’s ship besieged by Prospero’s enchanted storm and all of the ship’s inhabitants becoming separated and lost on parts of the island. Westeen’s production interpreted this with an outburst of utter chaos among the patients and staff, which, while not inappropriate for an asylum, did not seem to have any true impetus. All of the characters leapt into their dialogue at once, making it impossible to discern what was happening, and what little may have been clear enough to pick out was drowned out by the overpowering sound design. As beginnings go, it was rather inauspicious.
However, the next scene brought Prospero struggling to stage alone, bound in a straight jacket. Kaiser did not waste one moment before chewing the scenery, but his over-the-top performance never missed its mark. His Prospero was a charming and sometimes tragic juxtaposition of wounded dignity, nobility, and wildness, and his use of classical Shakespearean style as opposed to the conversational Shakespeare employed by the rest of the cast (with the exception of Gonzalo/Casey Coale) appropriately set him apart from the other characters. It clearly demonstrated that Prospero’s time in the asylum had caused him to retreat into his own reality, a theme that would continue throughout the show: until the final scene, Prospero never seemed to truly interact with any character other than Ariel (who intermittently appeared to be both real and imaginary).
Ariel and Prospero’s dynamic was definitely the most successful element of the production, especially in comparison to Prospero’s relationship with his daughter, Miranda. From the moment Miranda set foot on stage, her every movement, every expression, every word was filled with artifice and pretense. She was disingenuous to a fault, and all she did seemed a ploy—and yet a ploy with no purpose. Ariel, by contrast, was alternately petulant, coquettish, and rebellious; her charms and moods were a clear attempt to manipulate Prospero into giving her what she wanted, and when appropriate she dropped the caricature and reveled in very genuine emotion and affection.
It is between Ariel and Prospero that we see a true familial connection, which is unsurprising considering that in Westeen’s asylum, Prospero must have seen very little of his daughter after he was committed, and so to cope with this loss he created an imaginary surrogate child with whom he was able to have the kind of relationship he and Miranda would never establish. Like a real daughter, Ariel challenged him, attempted to con him into allowing her more freedom, and, ultimately, submitted to his authority. Her artifice, when employed, was with obvious intent, whereas Miranda’s cloying, saccharine insincerity seemed to belong to someone with no genuine investment in anyone else on stage. Even her interaction with Caliban (Kurt Bilanoski), her would-be rapist, was dismissive and hollow. She seemed far less like a young woman being callously forced to encounter her assailant and far more like a petulant and spoiled young girl pouting at an exboyfriend. That scene in particular was difficult to watch because Miranda’s reaction, or rather lack thereof, trivialized the gravity of sexual assault and the trauma of survivors.
It came as no surprise, then, that Miranda was drawn to Ferdinand. They were a match made in a particularly grating and shallow heaven. Babb’s performance as Ferdinand, unfortunately, can be described in no other way than thoughtless. There were moments when it was painfully clear that he had not taken the time to learn what his lines meant and he was simply parroting words from memory, and his movement in particular revealed very little, if any, time spent thinking about the physical repercussions of a suicide attempt. He paid no attention to his injuries: he carried heavy objects with no indication of pain and frequently placed all of his weight on his hands when rising—all this despite having slit his wrists recently enough for the blood to still be soaking through the bandages.
It was a relief when the scenes would transition from the lovers’ subplot to any of the other scenarios. The comedic exploits of Trinculo, Stefano (Elyse Rachal), and Caliban provided a much-needed break from the Telemundo-worthy melodrama. Bilanoski’s Caliban in particular was masterful and one of the stand-out performances of the show. He carefully trod the line of villainy, giving the audience brief glimpses into his wretchedness in sudden sympathetic moments but reeling it in before becoming truly piteous.
King Alonso’s (David Chapin) coterie is a similar mix of talent, with Neil Courington’s subtle and sarcastic performance as Sebastian being overwhelmed by Wayne Wright’s bombastic Antonio and the aforementioned stylistic incongruity of Coale’s Gonzalo. Chapin’s Alonso in particular was curiously wooden and dead-eyed as he stared out into the audience, rarely making eye contact with his fellow actors; it was difficult to tell if he was making an artistic choice or struggling to remember his lines.
Despite its shortcomings, however, the production adds an interesting conceit to a classic text and features a few truly wonderful performances. The Tempest runs October 17–November 8, 2014 at The Company Onstage. Tickets are $18.00 and may be purchased at www.companyonstage.org or by calling the box office at 713.726.1219.