Dark since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake--the same quake that fatally
toppled a section of the Bay Bridge that links San Francisco to the East
Bay--ACT's much-renovated Geary Theatre reopened in January (1996) with
a Tempest more interesting in its historical moment than its execution.
The restored Geary itself is tall but, at least at orchestra level, intimate:
with fabulous acoustics, high high ceilings, two balconies, and a Baroque
hallucination of gilt flora framing the surprisingly narrow, but deep, stage
space. Reliable witnesses, however, report deficient sight lines from the
balconies. On opening night, David Lang's music was performed live by the
Kronos Quartet, rendering poignant Stephano's line "This will prove
a brave kingdom to me, where I shall have my music for nothing" (3.2.144-45).
The music was taped and unremarkable for the rest of the run.
Until a magical evening in Ashland two seasons ago, I have intensely disliked so many recent productions of The Tempest that I had convinced myself it is simply a bad play. Though I no longer believe this, I remain certain that the litmus test for any production is the masque. In this one, Larry Reed's "shadow casters"--strategically placed behind a translucent white paper screen throughout the show--conveyed the magical masque via enormous projected color shadow images, including a giant face with bright red lips for one of the goddesses. At Prospero's sudden "I had forgot that foul conspiracy / Of the beast Caliban and his confederates / Against my life" (4.1.139-41), David Strathairn's mage burst through the paper screen. While this action ruptured the masque, it did not startle the audience nearly as much as director Carey Perloff had clearly hoped because the shadows had been omnipresent throughout.
The shadows linked together all the magic of the isle, including (and intelligently) the banquet in act three, and functioned (sometimes distractingly) as the production's noisy id. For example, shadowy feet appeared behind the entrance of the colorfully garbed Italians walking onto the island for the first time (2.1), and disembodied hands and books peculiarly cavorted behind Ferdinand and Miranda's courting (3.1). Already overused in conveying the magic, the shadows were not limited to magical effects, which was confusing if you thought about it for too long. Yet one especially powerful non-magical shadow image came in the brief assassination conspiracy between Antonio and Sebastian, in 2.1: as Antonio rapidly convinced a reluctant Sebastian to murder his brother Alonso, Antonio's shadow grew to Brobdingnagian proportions, vividly illustrating his powers of persuasion. A similar effect occurred in 3.2: Stephano's shadow grew while he listened to Caliban suggest the assassination of Prospero.
The gimmicky nature of the shadows was consistent with other aspects of the production: background ideas and effects consistently blurred the focus of the play by calling too much attention to themselves. David Patrick Kelley's Ariel, for example, had a psychotic quality that was refreshing after a series of ballerina spirits in other productions. Prospero seemed positively afraid of an elemental force over which he had, at best, tenuous control: when Prospero asked about the shipwrecked Italians "But are they, Ariel, safe?" (1.2.216) it was a genuine question. But the power of Kelley's Ariel was seriously undercut by the four-foot long feather he wore, attached to a beanie and wavering precariously throughout the night. At the end of the evening, after setting Ariel free, Prospero grabbed at the feather only to have the beanie come off in his hand, a cheesy effect that was both painfully predictable and--because I'd been expecting it--something of a relief. Similarly, along with a comically huge codpiece Graham Beckel's Caliban ("grimy but pretty fangless" in the words of Steve Winn, the reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle) wore a painful-looking bridle across his face that made him look pitiful rather than threatening.
Perhaps most confusedly characteristic of the production, the "some thousands of these logs" (3.1.10) that Ferdinand has to move in order to prove to Prospero that his love for Miranda is genuine were not pieces of wood but bright yellow nautical logbooks. This staged pun had no appreciable point: Ferdinand merely looked like he had to move all of a forty-year subscription to National Geographic from one part of a dentist's waiting room to another.
The clowns frequently--if only partially--redeem Tempests otherwise dreary, and this production was no exception. Trinculo (played by Michael Tucker, late of television's L.A. Law and Nowhere Man), clad in a black rain slicker, made an impressively energetic and charming first entrance lowered on a log from the rafters. In fact, the use of the high ceiling to lower characters, props, and the tableau of Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess was well managed throughout. Geoff Hoyle's Stephano was a marvelous hybrid of W. C. Fields and Paul Lynde; Hoyle took Alonso's description of Stephano as "my drunken butler" (5.1.277) quite seriously and to great comic effect.
Perhaps the interpretive excesses of this Tempest would not have been so bothersome if Strathairn had been up to the lead role, but he had neither sufficient voice nor physical presence. A young Prospero in colorless gray sweats, Strathairn looked more like he was going for a Tai Chi work-out at the dojo than going to conjure a magical storm. Throughout the night he was detached to the point of ennui, perking up only for an epilogue performed, unsurprisingly, in front of the torn white paper backdrop with all the machinery of the theatre exposed behind him. In a Tempest intended to herald ACT's homecoming to the Geary Theatre, Prospero's farewell to all his theatrical charms jarred the production's celebratory extra-theatrical occasion against its underwhelming concept, nearly rendering both incoherent.
From Shakespeare Bulletin: A Journal of Performance Criticism and Scholarship (14.2, Spring 1996).