Pulling a New Rabbit Out of an Old Hat

The Tempest at American Repertory Theater

Caliban (Zachary Eisenstat and Mannelich Minniefee) and Prospero (Tom Nelis). Photo by Geri Kodey.

Why do we love The Tempest so much? While it has it’s unique distinction as one of Shakespeare’s final plays (1611), the play itself is composed of stock archetypes, lacking the flaring and fierce emotions of his earlier plays, or the dashing, spirited, and witty female characters of his comedies. It has, as its long theatrical tradition shows, probably something to do with the discovery of the marvelous and unknown within the play that turns into riveting spectacle on the stage. American Repertory Theater’s production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest suggests the answer lies in the play’s mix of wonder, grotesquerie, and potent magic.

Prospero’s island is portrayed as brimming with music and magic, awash in optical illusions, ghostly interventions and mesmerizing songs and performances. Prospero (Tom Nelis) is an impressive master of the dark arts; however, his powers are not a means of retributive and terrifying punishment but a medium of powerful transformation.

The production amplifies the riches of magic powers on the island, as it steadily draws out the central themes of betrayal, rebellion, and forgiveness.

Prospero, the wronged former duke of Milan, conjures a storm to destroy a ship carrying his brother Antonio and King Alonso of Naples, who had conspired years earlier to divest him of his dukedom. The shipwrecked passengers encounter the residents of the magical island ruled over by Prospero—his daughter Miranda, the spirit Ariel, and the slave Caliban. There are a few departures from the original: An Ariel without wings and in white body paint (beautifully acted by Nate Dendy who is more an impish magician with some impressive card tricks up his sleeve rather than a fairy spirit) and a female Gonzala (Dawn Didawick) instead of a male Gonzalo. The production amplifies the riches of magic powers on the island, as it steadily draws out the central themes of betrayal, rebellion, and forgiveness.

Directed by Aaron Posner and Teller of the famous Penn and Teller magician duo, the play finds its mandate for illusions and tricks—even a levitation ceremony in which Miranda (Charlotte Graham) floats above the stage—within the unworded spaces of Shakespeare’s language. The stage is gorgeously dark and regal constructed in three tiers—Prospero and Ariel work their magic on the benighted shipwrecked lot on the proscenium, the upper layers are home to the musicians and the scene of the shipwreck.

The production expertly mingles high and low styles, the plebeian art and the literary text. Teller’s magic tricks of the kind that would not be out of place in a crowded circus tent or a vaudevillean form of theater lend a radiant power and benevolent authority to the world of The Tempest. This marriage between stage magic and Shakespeare’s philosophical truths reflects the spirit of The Tempest—Posner and Teller’s production depicts a world made up of both the pluripotent magician-patriarch, and the drunken, fumbling Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano.

There are tricks and illusions galore ranging from characters transforming into one another (Ariel vanishes and in his stead appears Prospero at one point), to disappearing acts, card tricks, and objects undergoing transformation—a plate of food turns into a severed head, inanimate objects seemingly move of their own accord. In an early memorable scene, Ariel’s head appears to move in impossible angles and directions as Prospero imprisons him in a box and turns the screws to remind him of his earlier terrible imprisonment on the island by the witch Sycorax. On stage is a shifting world of appearances in which there is little difference between states of wakefulness and sleep (one of Prospero’s powers is to put people to sleep at his will)—as wide-eyed and captivated audience members, we too miss the mechanisms by which instant magical metamorphoses occur, the invisibility essential for our wonder and delight. The enchantment of Prospero’s island is in no little measure due to singers Shaina Taub and Miche Braden who take part in this game of the Darkness and Beneficence of magic with lush and seductive vocals. Sometimes their songs are just meant for our ears and at other times their singing startles and haunts the visitors on the island.

Its most interesting aspect is perhaps the casting of Caliban, the “monster,” lighting up the play’s metaphors of deformity and unnaturalness in a unique fashion. Played by two actors simultaneously, Caliban has the appearance of a two-headed and eight-limbed Hindu god. Actor Zachary Eisenstat and dancer Manelich Minniefee of the Pilobolus Company, largely bare-bodied, are a sensual, pulsating mass of sinew and muscles and tendons, resembling figures in a Titian painting. They hiss, grunt, and curse with one voice. The actors balance each other on their backs, shoulders, and hips never losing contact with the other’s body— an electrifying acrobatic constellation of limbs and shapes.

As they wield, toss, and clamber over each other’s bodies, we are pulled into the world of a performance that has the riveting aura of a pre-twentieth century freak or carnival show—the spectacle of human anomaly and difference that the other characters in the play visibly react to and comment upon. Trinculo and Stephano, the other survivors of the shipwreck, in fact fantasize about making money by exhibiting Caliban as a monstrous curiosity in England.

One of Shakespeare’s best known characters, Caliban has been famously interpreted as a metaphor and symbol of rebellion against slavery and colonial domination. The tradition and history of performing Caliban included actors in black face, during the 1930s,  resembling African and aborigine caricatures. The character has also been portrayed through the use of grotesque animalistic masks and was continued to be associated with apes and a variety of other animals well into the twentieth century.

Starting around 1945, Caliban was among the first role to be offered to black actors in Shakespeare productions having the unfortunate, deeply racist effect of equating Caliban’s physical aberrations, his not quite human nature and appearance, with blackness, thus cementing racial pathologies amongst theater audiences as well as reviewers. In her study of the production history of The Tempest, Christine Dymkowski notes that a critic says of Margaret Webster’s 1945 production at the Alvin Ailey Theatre, New York, “Caliban is a perfect role for a Negro.” It wasn’t until the 1963 production of The Tempest by Clifford Williams and Peter Brook that a “blacked-up Caliban” attracted some censure from a critic for the racist implications of such a portrayal. But such criticism was rare, and the highly problematic representations would continue unchallenged.

Here, Caliban is portrayed by a white actor and an actor of color and the racial hybridity of bodies seems to liberate Caliban from a theatrical history of stereotypes and type-casting. He is referred to in jesting horror by Stephano as a creature with “four legs and two voices; a most delicate monster” and ART’s Tempest finds a fitting way to manifest this description.

The wide-eyed Miranda is raised on the island and has not met any other human besides her father; she is overtaken by joy and wonder when the shipwrecked Ferdinand and others come into her life. She exclaims at the end, “O brave new world that has such people in it,” to which Prospero replies, “It is new to thee.” This quality of novelty and sameness applies to a Shakespeare play to which we return again and again hoping to see it come alive on the stage in a new way.

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