Before Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, and even Caliban…there was Sycorax. In One Word More, writer and performer Annalisa Dias offers a bold, mind-bending vision of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that stretches from the remote desert island all the way to the American frontier.
Dias, director Bridget Grace Sheaff, and their ambitious creative team have turned back the clock to when Prospero first crashed, confused and afraid, on the storied island ruled by the powerful Sycorax. In Shakespeare’s text, Sycorax is never seen and merely referenced as a cruel and dangerous witch. In One Word More, Dias transforms her into a sympathetic centerpiece and reverts Prospero to a disembodied voiceover. From this novel angle, Dias’ examines the colonialism, patriarchy, and native erasure that have followed Western explorers for centuries. Interestingly enough, her biggest scorn is reserved for American pioneers Lewis and Clark.
Dias blends her imagined encounters between Sycorax and Prospero with verbatim readings from Lewis and Clark’s shocking expedition journals. The explorers’ xenophobic insights on first contact with Native Americans force the audience to confront the uncomfortable implications of Prospero’s rule. By the start of The Tempest, the Milanese Duke has simply overthrown or enslaved the natives, and Sycorax is nowhere to be found. Her son Caliban is treated as an outcast and villain by the virtuous Western leads. If nothing else, Dias’ thought experiment exposes an uncomfortable imperialist through-line bridging 17th Century England and 19th Century America.
The confident Dias has no trouble commanding the stage alone for 60 uninterrupted minutes. In her troubled historian role, she alternates between dry academic humor and growing unease at Lewis and Clark’s racist, sexist musings. As Sycorax, she stalks the dirt-covered Mead Theatre Lab stage waging emotional and physical battle with the strengthening Prospero.
The quick transitions between writing studio, American frontier, and remote island can be confusing – the show works best when Dias has time to really dig into a particular scene without interruption. The only pieces that just don’t work are two dance sections where she seeks to imitate a mighty storm, but instead looks more like she’s caught inside a wind-tossed garbage bag.
The production’s most clever trick is creating a convincing likeness of Prospero onstage with only voiceover and an assortment of broken statues. Sculptor Brian Fernandes-Halloran employs a variety of materials and styles to create a graveyard of parts collectively representing the stranded Duke. With help from the well-timed sound and lighting work by designers DeLesslin George-Warren and E-hui Woo, the statues channel Prospero with a surprising degree of realism.
One Word More follows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’s lead by tracking minor Shakespearean characters in the space between pages to ask tough questions about life and shared experience. Dias and company turn the “great explorer” mythos of Prospero and Lewis & Clark on its head and slowly restore stolen agency to Sycorax, Caliban, and Native Americans – one performance at a time.
One Word More . Writer and Performer: Annalisa Dias . Director: Bridget Grace Sheaff . Costume Designer: Tori Boutin . Sound Designer: DeLesslin George-Warren . Lighting Designer: E-hui Woo . Sculpture Artist: Brian Fernandes-Halloran . Stage Manager: Amanda Zeitler . Production Support: CulturalDC . Reviewed by Ben Demers.