If you sit in the front row at New City Theater you can screw your bottle of beer into fine, white sand as you watch Peter Crook expertly unearth the depths of Caliban, as if you were in some kind of Renaissance-era Corona commercial. As an audience member on Nina Moser's immersive set, you feel as if you're being entertained as much as you feel like you're one of the sailors a wizard has shipwrecked on the island, lost and mystified and slightly drunk and yet not exactly wanting to leave. This tension speaks to what I always loved about this late Shakespeare play, the way it plays with the paradox of the imagination, something that's at once all powerful and also totally insubstantial.
If it's been a while since you've seen The Tempest, it's the one set on an island where there's a wizard named Prospero (Mary Ewald), who has a daughter, Miranda (Skylar Tatro), who meets a boy, Ferdinand (Brandon J. Simmons), who washed ashore when Prospero conjured a storm to shipwreck some Italian nobles who usurped his dukedom and banished him from his own damn town. Payback.
Prospero burdens Ferdinand with chores to slow the young lover's roll, and employs his fairy servant, Ariel (Elena Ewald Kazanjian), to foil various murder plots that spring up among the Italian nobility. The island's beauty and its "thousand twangling instruments" make all the human scheming—which are huge personal/political deals—seem petty and dumb.
"The imagination is rewarding and life is beautiful—why can't you see that, conniving politicians?" Shakespeare seems to say.
The play's most powerful figure for me and everybody else is Caliban, who is often read as a figure of the embattled indigenous person trying to escape the slavery of these fucking wizards and nobles colonizing his home island. He's got one of the baddest lines in all of Shakespeare: "You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is I know how to curse."
Almost every image and metaphor in the play points back, reverently and irreverently, to the art of making, starting with the title, which describes the storm that brings all the players together. Prospero stands in for the figure of the playwright, the artificer who gathers these characters together in the cloud of his or her mind and wrecks havoc upon their lives for the sake of entertainment and pleasure. "We are such stuff,/ As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep," as Prospero says. He even goes so far as to address the audience in the Epilogue, asking us to applaud so we can set free the wizard who enslaved so many in the play. Everything's meta.
Though that governing metaphor is sitting on an easy-to-reach shelf, it serves as a good excuse for Shakespeare to revel in the beauty and weirdness of his own language. Some of the most heartbreaking speeches come from this play, including Caliban's cussing speech and his "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises" speech.
In addition to Crook's predictably red-blooded performance of Caliban, Skylar Tatro's quiet intensity and mesmerizing voice (even when she's speaking softly her voice fills the whole room and I don't know how she does that) is a highlight, and makes Miranda's hyper-romantic gestures seem real and not like youthful folly. Mary Ewald's Prospero is powerful and precise. Though she and Crook will swap the roles of Caliban and Prospero throughout the run, I was glad to see her play the wizard. Unlike Helen Mirren in Julie Taymor's film of the play, Ewald's Prospero wasn't called "mother," nor was she referred to as Prospera. There seemed to be no adjustments made for the gender of the actor, and none seemed required. If anything, Ewald playing a wizard who is called "father" seemed to remove the gendered aspect from the notion of "fathering," and thus the gendered aspect from the notion of "creator," which opens up the role.
Aside from the immersive element of the sandy floor and the gender-swapping, the play is a pretty straightforward reproduction, which tends to be my favorite variety. Updating The Tempest with jazz-age costumes or whatever always seems to miss the point. You don't update Shakespeare, Shakespeare updates you on the enduring mysteries, the ones with an infinite refresh rate. Like spring.
In fact, the play's perfect for spring. Crystalline singing provided by the spirits of the island—Kazanjian, Nancy Brasseale, and Piper Olson—interrupt and control the actions of the characters, and continually reinforce the play's focus on artifice and the temporal nature of that artifice, which serves as a gentle reminder that the current spring we're all enjoying now—the irises are already out!—will soon be gone, and a nudge to enjoy it while the flowers are still going nuts on the trees.
For tickets to The Tempest, click here.