by Robert Moore
September 29 - October 2, 2004
It's been a long time since I've watched the good old Top Poet, Wm. Shaksper, get tripped up at the heels, held upside down and slapped awake. Perhaps as long ago as seeing one of those Charles Marowitz travesties from the eighties -- say, his upending of The Taming of the Shrew -- or Tom Stoppard at his scandalous best, as in Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth.
But Robert Moore's Rougher Magic does a pretty fair job of reminding us that just because it's Shakespeare, it's not necessarily in tune with all our most deeply cherished modern values. As Adam Gopnik pointed out a few weeks ago in the New Yorker, there really is no way short of text tampering to make The Taming of the Shrew into a feminist play, or The Merchant of Venice into a pro-Semitic one. Shakespeare was, after all, an Elizabethan. And, as Moore makes clear, no matter how hard you shake The Tempest, without some fundamental change it's never going to be the sort of thing a member of an uprooted, displaced indigenous people is going to be comfortable with.
At the end of a couple of hours' worth of startling, athletic, imaginative and colorful messing about with Shakespeare's last play (as well as a fair number of other plays by the master, and an eclectic selection of different dramatic conventions), it's not really a surprise that it's Caliban, not Prospero, who gets the big speech about cloud-capped towers and insubstantial pageants leaving not a wrack behind. Whatever the play has failed to make clear -- and there's quite a lot, amid all the ebullience, speed-talk, mime, parody and acrobatics -- it's brought us to see that when Prospero "colonized" the enchanted island and educated and/or enslaved Caliban, he wreaked havoc that can't be unwreaked. One of the most powerful moments in the play occurs when Caliban (played wonderfully by a shaven-headed and artistically war-painted Len Falkenstein) explains to Prospero that just leaving when his business is done, which is of course what happens in Shakespeare's version, isn't in the cards. Nor is Prospero's asking for forgiveness going to cut much mustard. No, Caliban says (and one can hear the voice of indigenous peoples all over the world), this is not my home any more. You can't just walk away. You've not only changed the land, you've changed me so that I don't belong here any more -- your language, your words, have come between me and the mud and the trees, and even the stars. "You are the monster on this isle." "I'll keep you here to shit on everything you've ever tried to do."
Much that leads to this conclusion is wonderful, and a good bit is pretty difficult to get your head around on a first viewing. Although Moore pares The Tempest down to its bare essentials -- Caliban, Ariel, Prospero, Miranda, and Ferdinand -- he doesn't leave it bare. He adds in a whole lot of baroque and often tasty spice.
For instance, there's an adventurous parody of the Caliban-Trinculo-Stephano monster scene, with Ariel and Ferdinand somehow become the two drunken mariners. There's a spooky and oddly moving dumbshow, with masks, of the childbirth death of Miranda's mother. Miranda and Ariel have a wonderful verbal tennis match, swapping lines and scraps of characterization from various Shakespeare plays back and forth at each other, standing right up to the net for volley after volley, testing the skill, speed and timing of veteran Marissa Robinson and relative newcomer Seann Murray (both achieve sparkle and clarity and force without breaking into a sweat). What it was all about I wasn't so clear on (for instance, why does Miranda deliver the "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech from Macbeth in German?), but as a display of thespian pyrotechnics it was just fine. There's all kinds of wordplay and stylistic crosscutting between Shakespeare's language and the most current kind of casual conversational language, throughout the play. We don't get "O brave new world, that has such creatures in it"; we get "we don't get many strangers around here."
And, for good measure, Miranda's played by three actors. Andrew Jones in drag is an older, dourer Miranda, and Chelsea Seale is a younger, more innocent Miranda, with her Barbie and Ken dolls and her instant teenybopper infatuation with Ferdinand. Both were solid, clear and consistent. Marissa Robinson, as the aspect of Miranda in the most intense love/hate relationship with Caliban, was, as always, vivid, disciplined and magnetic. I especially liked the scene in which she tantalizingly educates Caliban in "polite conversation" like a dominatrix schoolmarm, and the compelling dream narrative with which she torments him, at Prospero's instigation.
The role of Prospero is a challenge, no less than in the original, but for different reasons. This Prospero takes up the parts of Shakespeare's character that are defeated and tired and ready to break his staff, drown his book, and retire to his garden. Scott Shannon, who also directed, creates a sympathetic, human figure, and if his exposition wasn't always as clearly projected as I'd have liked, especially toward the beginning, he made us believe that he truly would like to undo what has happened to the Island. He is, we realize, after all, us (the enemy, as Pogo used to remind us, we have met).
Caliban and Ariel are among Shakespeare's most challenging creations, and they're the sort of roles actors jump at. Moore's versions are similarly challenging, and Falkenstein and Murray create images, lines and scenes that will stay a long time in my store of memorable theatrical moments. For instance, Murray's Ariel, acrobatically charging about the stage as though on the verge of flying, with his startling white face makeup and spiked hair, and leaping into the dark on an exit line: "Cue the animal act." Instantly, out of the darkness behind me, the roar of the feral, suddenly spotlit Caliban, thundering down the aisle to tell us that this is his place, that he is part of the island's mud and blood.
There are many such moments in the production. Nichoas Cole's Ferdinand, with his Shakespearean prancing and skipping; Andrew Jones's Miranda shamefacedly wiping off his lipstick when daddy sees what she's doing; the three Mirandas from the tops of the aisles on three sides of the stage, contrapuntally wondering how long she's been on the island.
Is it all relevant? Is everything necessary? Does it all add neatly up to the dead Prospero -- Caliban's pointless but inevitable destruction of the person who had been his God? I'm not certain: I'd be happy to read the script and see the production again, as I have faith there are connections I missed. It's probably that faith, generated by the sheer force of the passion behind the script and the production, that made me much less concious of some issues that would usually bother me -- for instance, what was the convention about the actors sitting around waiting? Were they in character or out? Was this a show put on by actors or a series of shows put on by characters? Was the theatre in the round setting really used very effectively? (Sometimes it seemed to me that the placement of actors presumed that there was one real direction of the play, and people on the other side were left out.) The lighting was wonderfully timed and dramatic, but it seemed to me to be used in different ways at different times. Sometimes there was music, sometimes there wasn't (and though I very much liked the faint, delicate bird twitterings toward the end, they seemed to me a quite different sort of convention than we'd seen before).
But in the last analysis, all this didn't seem to matter much. As an evening of theatre that sends you out changed from what you were going in, Moore's Magic, rough as it is, is up there with the most powerful Shakespeare demolitions I've encountered.