By William Shakespeare
Produced by Folger Shakespeare Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Aaron Posner is one of the best directors at work in Washington. He is an unparalleled interpreter of Shakespeare who justly won two Helen Hayes Awards in three years for his direction of Shakespeare plays. This time around, he has made a decision so wrongheaded that it has sucked most of the comedy out of Shakespeare’s last comedy.
Posner forgot Trinculo and Stephano.
When I say “forgot”, of course, I don’t mean it literally. Trinculo and Stephano are there, after a fashion. Stephano is Caliban’s hand. Trinculo is a bottle from which Caliban has drunk. And their riotous, rustic, half-drunken dialogue has been transformed into a babble which Caliban hears, and translates, as voices in his head.
Let’s step back a bit. The Tempest – Shakespeare’s The Tempest – is the story of Prospero (Michael Rudko), Duke of Milan, who was overthrown by his brother Antonio (Michael Stewart Allen). With his infant daughter Miranda (Erin Weaver), he was bundled into a leaky boat which shipwrecked on an uncharted island. There, Prospero established his dominion over Caliban (Todd Scofield), the savage son of the resident witch, and Ariel (Marybeth Fritzky), a powerful spirit. The play begins twelve years later, when a ship carrying Antonio, King Alonso of Naples (David Emerson Toney), Alonso’s brother Sebastian (Jefferson A. Russell) – all conspirators against Prospero – sails nearby. On board, too, are Prospero’s old ally Gonzalo (Jim Zider) and Alonso’s son Ferdinand (Mikaal Sulaiman). Prospero orders Ariel to shipwreck the boat and afterward to lead Ferdinand to Miranda. The two young people, to Prospero’s secret delight, fall in love. Prospero assigns mighty labors to Ferdinand, which he completes cheerfully, and the old Duke then gives his blessing to the lovers. In the meantime, Ariel sends powerful torments to the remainder of the shipwrecked visitors, to remind them of their many sins (even while shipwrecked, Antonio and Sebastian had been conspiring to assassinate King Alonso and claim his throne for Sebastian). Finally, Prospero drags the reprobates to his cave and one by one forgives them. He frees Ariel, gives up his magical powers, secures Alonso’s consent for Ferdinand and Miranda to take over Naples, and prepares for death.
What elevates The Tempest from the drab characteristics of a morality play is a subplot – the hilarious interchange between Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban. Caliban lures the other two, two bibulous survivors of the shipwreck, into a crackpot conspiracy to overthrow Prospero and take over the island. Ariel and Prospero easily defeat their scheme, of course, but not before the trio manages to make a mash of sense, logic, proportion and language so grand and magnificent as to approach a sense of majesty. It was the only episode of The Three Stooges ever written by William Shakespeare.
Posner has made all this go away. Instead of presenting Stephano and Trinculo, he has Caliban finish off a bottle of wine carelessly left behind by Gonzalo. Suddenly, the island’s monster begins to hallucinate a conversation in which the empty bottle of wine comes to life and is Trinculo, and his own hand takes on the personality of Stephano – two people who, until this moment, never existed, even in Caliban’s imagination. In league with his hand and the empty bottle, Caliban vows to declare war on Prospero, break into his cell, destroy his books, and do violence to his person.
‘taint funny, Magee. The gifted Scofield, using three distinct comic voices to represent Caliban and his two hallucinations, manages to wring some laughs out of their three scenes together, but it is nothing like the hilarity of the three characters onstage represented by three good comic actors. The half-drunk trio, gluttonous with ambition, staggering to Prospero’s cell, are heartbreakingly funny. The demented Caliban, muttering to himself on the empty shore, is merely heartbreaking.
“This I will tell my master,” says the ever-present Arial, spying on the scene from her heavenly perch. But what would her message be? “Caliban is talking with his hand!” “Caliban is conspiring with an empty bottle of wine to overthrow your rule!”
The Folger’s production is thus The Tempest with only half the fun. To be entirely fair, though, Posner has made several other decisions which make the play wonderfully accessible and sensible, and solve some difficult problems. Let’s take a look at these accomplishments:
1. Prospero. The erstwhile Duke of Milan is so powerful, and defeats his foes so easily, that it’s easy to play him as cold, arrogant and remote. Rudko, instead, plays him as an old man, with wonderful result. White-haired, hesitant, unsure, agitated, Rudko’s Prospero is a man like us, or like our father or grandfather. When he delivers his closing speech, in which he surrenders his powers and prepares for his death, we are watching a human tragedy, not a ritual, and we are moved.
2. Ariel. Fritzky’s Ariel, like Rudko’s Prospero, is intensely human. Unlike Prospero, she is not a human being. But the agitation she feels bound under Prospero’s spell, and her yearning for freedom, touch a responsive chord in every human heart. When at last Prospero sets her free, she turns into a light, and is otherwise pure energy, and we understand that for all creatures there is a home.
3. Magic. There can be no Tempest without magic, and Folger and Posner lay it on vigorously without being heavy handed. There is an immense circular screen midway up the center of the stage, and on it appear images of the sea, lightning, ghosts, and, constantly, Ariel herself. Technical Director Eric Grims and his staff have executed Posner’s imaginative construct perfectly, and with great beauty.
I suppose that to be on the cutting edge requires an occasional misfire, since to do otherwise would bespeak too conservative an approach. The great Posner – a term I use wholly without irony – has in my view misfired here, but it is an interesting misfire, and there are many fine compensations nonetheless.
(Running time: 1:55 with 1 intermission). The Tempest continues Tuesdays through Sundays until June 17. Tuesdays through Thursdays are at 7.30; Fridays and Saturdays are at 8; Sundays are at 7.00. There are additional matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2.00. No performances on Tuesday, May 15 and Tuesday, May 29. All performances at 201 East Capitol Street SE in Washington. Tickets run from $32 to $50 and may be purchased at 202.544.7077 or at www.folger.edu/theatre