It’s hard to escape preconceptions about The Tempest. The magic, the inevitable writhing Caliban, the old-testament father/magician Prospero, the magic spirit Ariel with whom every director likes to do something they think is innovative make it really easy to restage old stereotypes. But it’s these same elements that make The Tempest so full of possibilities. In my mind, it’s high time for an explosion.
That’s exactly what Jessica Thebus and Frank Maugeri, co-creators of The Feast: an intimate Tempest, have done. They have marooned Prospero (John Judd) on the same island (although sometimes it feels just like he’s trapped in the theater), where he apparently found and enslaved Ariel (Samuel Taylor) and Caliban (Adrian Danzig) as usual, except that none of the others from Italy ever arrived. He sits perpetually at a huge table, ringing his magic bell, forcing his slaves to act out the story we know as Shakespeare’s The Tempest for him again and again—which can only be his intricate fantasy to work out all of his anger and resentment. Through this odd Beckettian repetitive ritual, which usually ends with Prospero tossing some food akin to dog biscuits to the others, we get acquainted with Prospero’s futility. No matter how much power he might have over Ariel and Caliban, he cannot influence anything that really matters to him.
A break from the story to rave about something that needs to be raved about: the puppets. Ariel and Caliban end up inhabiting most of the characters with these incredible puppets and masks which make the show visually arresting. Maugeri, who is also co-artistic director and a puppeteer at Redmoon Theater, has created delicate, graceful animals. The voids in their eyes are capable of a level of loneliness that a human being cannot achieve without being dismissed as pathetic or indulgent, and are the most moving thing to watch in the play as well as the most innovative. Especially with the Miranda puppet—you cannot look away.
The other major element of the design is the huge dock-like table, which Prospero makes do “magic” things by pulling levers. Not to ruin it for you, but after the first few magic tricks, it is obvious that there is a stagehand underneath controlling the table. It’s distracting only because Prospero tries so hard to synchronize his motions with the stagehands that he drops out of the play and his physicality becomes tentative at exactly the moments where he needs to be exerting power.
Trapping Prospero in this horrifying prison is as fitting as it is cruel. They make him powerful enough to control nearly everything in his immediate surroundings, but utterly incapable of escape, getting the revenge he craves, living his life, certainly of summoning his enemies to his island. The moment where he gives up the power he does have takes on entirely new significance from Shakespeare’s version. He is not a god character giving up his power, but a human being giving up his illusion of control. Surrender.
That action leaves Prospero utterly alone, without even his fantasies for comfort. The idea that the fantasy worlds we create are poisonous is not new, but you feel the other side of that coin sneak up on you. That’s the realization that reality is indeed, no better, and in fact it’s more boring, more stagnant, and filled with so much excruciating time with which to do… nothing. Told you: it’s The Tempest According to Samuel Beckett.
Ariel and Caliban, who, as usual, are both after freedom, become the heroic characters, and you get a sense that they can actually live once they’re free. They are victims of Prospero’s cruelty, but they also seem to pity him—almost love him. Samuel Taylor as Ariel resists his rebellious urges beautifully by putting on elaborate puppet shows with the Trinculo and Stephano characters, borrowing Prospero’s fantasy world to escape! Adrian Danzig’s Caliban is also lovely, quite understated until Prospero forces to put on a mask to make him more grotesque—“not you… YOU,” he says as he hands it to him. The mask is perpendicular to his face so that Caliban has to look at the floor for the mask to look straight. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch both actor and character in these moments, and what those physicalities do to him emotionally.
The production is clearly still an experiment, and it’s good that it lasts only 70 minutes, but there is a lot to love about the things that they’re trying. Miranda’s haunting, empty, lonely eyes got burned into my mind that night, and I can’t get them out of my head.
The Feast runs at Chicago Shakes out on Navy Pier through March 11, 2012. Get tickets at www.chicagoshakes.com. Photo Credit to Mr. Michael Brosilow.