Sunday, April 28, 2013

Skin Deep (and May Shows)

How could I write a play for my fellow third graders to perform when it would be nearly a decade before I actually saw a play, live onstage? The short answer is television, specifically situation comedies. It is even now the format that any American audience is most likely to know, including audiences for the comedy Skin Deep, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka.

 Those audiences are greeted with Daniel C. Nyiri’s impressive set that nevertheless looks familiar. It’s a down-market, outer-borough New York apartment, reproduced with the detail we expect in a movie or TV show set. Some of those details—like the box of Ritz crackers, the Kix cereal on top of the fridge—suggest that despite the vaguely contemporary time in which the play takes place, this is really the sitcom 1950s, but with cell phones and collagen injections.

 It’s the apartment of Maureen Mulligan (played by Christina Jioras), a plus-size and no longer young woman, who is getting ready for a blind and possibly last chance date with Joe Spinelli (Dmitry Tokarsky), perennially unattached and also middle aged. Maureen’s sister Sheila (Susan Abbey) is helping her prepare, with encouragement and makeup. Sheila was the pretty one, though lately obsessed with cosmetic surgery. She’s married to an upscale lawyer she’s worried is straying, the handsome Squire Whiting (Brad Curtis.)

 While Brooklyn and Queens no doubt maintain some old ethnic enclaves (though I’d be surprised if there are many Irish parents who still expect one of their daughters to become a nun,) this has a very 50s sitcom feel: Irish and Italian Catholics, plus a token WASP, as seen through the comedic and highly verbal prism of predominantly Jewish writers.

All the characters in Jon Lonoff’s script for Skin Deep are witty, the story is sweet and slight, with a single psychological turn that Maureen eventually states directly, in case we missed it while laughing at the jokes. This play really is skin deep. But skin is important, too (it’s where we first feel the world, and where we get burned.) And there are worse ways to spend an evening than watching a live sitcom, especially with this ensemble of actors.

 Not only are they individually talented, able to create convincing characters and relationships that have nuances that deepen the play, but they do so by working so well and so truthfully together. Credit for that must also extend to director Cassandra Hesseltine. Christina Jioras is winning, Brad Curtis brings out elements of his character that might otherwise remain latent in the script, Dmitry Tokarsky is solid and Susan Abbey is funny without losing her character’s dignity and humanity. The New York accents are pretty good, too.

 There’s romance, misunderstanding and a touch of farce in the second act involving (as farce often does) closed doors hiding someone who shouldn’t be there, or open doors creating a wrong impression. It’s uncynical, moderately fast paced and not long.

There's some apparent playfulness with names.  "Squire Whiting" comes close to being parody for the one WASP in the play.  But I detect a pun in the heroine's name too--Maureen Mulligan--a mulligan basically being a do-over.  A second chance for romance, get it?

There’s a lot about food, so expect to crave snacks afterwards.  Food mentions could be another reason that this play is apparently done most often at dinner theatres.  In fact, despite an Off-Off New York debut, this may be basically a direct-to-dinner theatre play, and I suspect that's an entire genre now.  Still, the Redwood Curtain production is funny and enjoyable.  Even without dinner.

Costumes are by Jenneveve Hood, sound by Jon Turney, props by Laura Rhinehart.  Skin Deep continues weekends at Redwood Curtain through May 18.

Coming Up:

Speaking of dinner theatre, Murder By Dessert presents Cinquo de Mayo mysteries at two local Mexican restaurants this weekend:  at Capala Mexican Restaurant in Eureka on Friday and Luzmilla's in McKinleyville on Saturday, each starting at 9.

On Thursday and Friday (May 2, 3) at 8 p.m., the Arcata Playhouse hosts the physical theatre duo Wonderheads Mask Theater, performing an original piece, Loon. Co-artistic directors Kate Braidwood and Andrew Phoenix are graduates of the Dell’Arte International School, and their signature is larger-than-life masks and puppets, billed as “live-action Pixar.” Liz Nicholls in the Edmonton Journal described this show as “a simple, classic underdog story, the rediscovery of the sense of possibility. And it’s told with beautiful physicality.” Arcata

Also this weekend, Proof ends its run at HSU. It's the Pulitzer Prize winning drama by David Auburn. Produced by HSU Theatre and directed by Michael Thomas, it features Dakota Dieter, James Read, Kyle Handziak and Queena DeLany.  Lynnie Horrigan designed the set, Glen Nagy the sound, James McHugh the lighting, Marissa Menezes the costumes and makeup.   More information: Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with the last show on Sunday at 2, in Gist Hall Theatre. HSU Stage.

The 1960s musical Hello, Dolly! is performed at Ferndale Repertory Theatre at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Directed by Justin Takata, with musical direction by Tina Toomata (you say Takata, I say Toomata), choreography by Linda Maxwell and scenic design by Liz Uhazy, it features Rae Robison, Dave Fuller, Erik Standifird, Molly Severdia, Dante Gelormino, Sasha Shay, Lizzie Chapman and Brodie Storey heading a large cast. It closes May 12.

Antigone continues at Eureka High, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

Proof, the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning play by David Auburn, opens for two weekends at HSU  on Thursday (May 25.)  It's a play about family, genius, madness, identity, academia, sex and love, but mostly (I've concluded) it explores the polarities of proof and trust, and the practical impossibility of one of them.  Redwood Curtain did a production of this some years back.

Directed by Michael Thomas and produced by HSU Theatre, Film & Dance, Proof features Dakota Dieter, James Read, Kyle Handziak and Queena DeLany. Lynnie Horrigan is the set designer, James McHugh designed lighting, Glen Nagy designed sound, Marissa Menezes designed costumes and makeup.  Proof plays in the Gist Hall Theatre Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. this weekend and next.  Much more at HSU Stage.  Tickets: 826-3928.

Also opening this weekend is Skin Deep at Redwood Curtain, a comedy by Jon Lonoff, about a "large, lovable, lonely-heart" and an awkward man on a blind date, and the course of their relationship.  Directed by Cassandra Hesseltine, it features Christina Jioras, Dmitry Tokarsky, Susan Abbey and Brad Curtis.  Daniel C. Nyiri designed set and lighting, costumes are by Jennevieve Hood and sound by John Turney.

Previews are Thursday and Friday, with official opening on Saturday, all at 8 p.m. Performances continue Thursdays-Saturdays through May 18.   To reserve tickets, email or call 443-7688.

This weekend at Dell'Arte the International School's students present their annual audience favorite, the clown show.  This year it's called Who Ya Callin Bozo? Clown 2013, directed by Ronlin Foreman.  It plays Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. Reservations are a really good idea:(707)668-5663.

The Arcata Playhouse and KHSU present The Word: A Community Story-Telling Project, with North Coast people telling stories about the North Coast, on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Arcata Playhouse, with the Saturday show broadcast live on KHSU.

A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and A Prayer, monologues edited by Eve Ensler and Mollie Doyle, is presented Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Native American Forum at HSU.

Eureka High School presents Antigone at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

The Sue Bigelow Memorial and Celebration of Life is on Sunday, scheduled for 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the North Coast Rep Theatre in Eureka.  Dianne Zuleger writes: "There may be a short presentation/reading from a script.  All are welcome to take the stage and share a Sue story. Please bring an hors d'eouvres of some kind and/or a beverage.  Also, if you have any photos, we'd like to put together a PowerPoint video.  Please send digital copies (or scan hardcopies) and email them to me. If you can't scan, bring them to me and I'll do it for you.  Thanks!"  Her email is

Thursday, April 18, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

Dell'Arte International second years present their Tragedy project, A Harvest of Stones, described as a "poetic story of a farmer who struggles to hold onto his land in the face of drought, debt, and ecological disaster."  It's ensemble-devised, led by faculty instructor Lauren Wilson, with choregraphy by Donlin Foreman.  It's at the Carlo Thursday, Friday and Saturday (April 18-20) at 8 p.m.  707 668-5663,

Also beginning Thursday, the HSU Opera Workshop opens the contemporary comic opera Too Many Sopranos by Edwin Penhorwood, a satire with luscious music about four sopranos who must go to hell to bring back tenors and basses (i.e. men) for the soprano-heavy heavenly choir. North Coast singers Steve Nobles, Dylan Karl, Luke Sikora, Rigel Schmitt and Op Workshop director Elisabeth Harrington join up with student singers Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Studio Theatre, upstairs in the HSU Theatre Arts building.  826-3928.  HSUMusic.

On Friday, Ferndale Rep opens the musical Hello Dolly. (No photo made available.) Directed by Justin Takata with musical direction by Tina Toomatta, choreography by Linda Maxwell and scenic design by Liz Uhazy, it stars Rae Robison as Dolly, with Dave Fuller, Erik Standifird and Molly Severdia headlining the large cast.  It continues weekends through May 12.  786-5483.

The Arcata Playhouse Family Fun series continues this weekend with Lakota storyteller Robert Owens-Greygrass performing "Stories to Grow Your Heart On" on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., with a Saturday afternoon show at 2 p.m.  On Sunday at 8 p.m. Owens-Greygrass reprises an earlier show, "Walking on Turtle Island." 

North Coast high schools are mounting their spring productions.  Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m., Arcata High School performs the whodunit mystery It Was A Dark and Stormy Night ( Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. Eureka High offers Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, described as "30 neo-futurist plays in under one hour."  441-2508. Ehsplayers.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare's The Tempest continues at NCRT.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Tempest at North Coast Rep

The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last play and in some ways a summation. For one thing it’s a kind of anthology of clips from his greatest hits: there’s the royal treachery of his histories, a romance in a pastoral setting, a philosophical protagonist, spectacle, magic, music, and a couple of clowns.

 It’s rare that Shakespeare doesn’t base the story on an existing text. Out of numerous sources from reality and literature, his alchemy creates a myth: of Prospero, who uses his learning to command the magic of an uncharted island through the powerful spirit called Ariel, while defending his daughter Miranda against the animalistic man called Caliban.

 This myth has fed countless other stories and supplied metaphors for many discussions through the years, just as this play itself has been interpreted and presented on stage in many different ways. As directed by David Hamilton, the production of The Tempest now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka retains the vague Shakespearian period, and imposes nothing significant on the text except perhaps the final image. It’s a thoughtful production but a clear and entertaining one, very accessible to those who’ve never seen the play while providing novel nuance for those who have.

 It begins with a shipwreck caused by Prospero’s magic that deposits Italian nobles and their retinue on this island, including men who are part of Prospero’s past as the deposed duke of Milan. They wander to their fates on Calder Johnson’s earthy brown set that is scattered with magical symbols.

 Scott Malcolm is a Prospero both sad and angry, with a heaviness about him. Kate Haley is an appealing Miranda, easy to imagine with Bobby Bennett’s believable Ferdinand as star-struck lovers. Kenneth Wigley is a convincing Caliban, constricted, tormented and rebellious.

 In this production Ariel is always accompanied by a retinue of undulating nymphs (Eva Brena, Caitlin Volz, Alyssa Rempel, Caitlin Wik, Tenn J. Wilson) and seems a creature more of earth and sea than the usual depiction of Ariel as a spirit of air and fire. This makes her more kin to Caliban than opposite. In any case, Chyna Leigh makes an arresting Ariel, with strong voice and gravity-defying costume. Her first song is magical, one of the evening’s highlights.

 Brian Walker as the jester Trinculo and Tyler Egerer as Stephano were funny and skillful in the physical comedy of their two key scenes. They seem so clownish however that their conspiracy with Caliban to murder Prospero never seems credible, though Prospero takes it seriously. Ken Klima, Bob Service, Scott Osborn, Pam Service and Annajane Murphy clearly portray the different aspects of the beached nobles, including the ignoble.

 The diction was crisp and the acting energetic for the first act on opening night, though clarity tended to fade in the second act and several key scenes seemed obscured. Though this is Shakespeare’s shortest play, it played for nearly 3 hours.

 The shipwreck and Prospero’s magic show for the newly engaged Miranda and Ferdinand were films by Malcolm DeSoto. They worked technically and cinematically, but seemed to drain some energy from the stage. There was some neat stage magic I won’t give away.

 Hamilton’s direction did not focus on the themes of colonialism that some productions do, but they’re in the play and don’t need emphasizing. The earthy emphasis suggests but doesn’t insist on an environmental message, as the island itself suggests the tradition of utopian tales.

The biggest addition I detected was at the end, when instead of breaking his magical staff (as he promised), Prospero hands it to Caliban. I'm not sure what this is meant to mean, but Caliban is the only character whose fate is not stipulated in the text. All in all, it’s a considered, skillful production.

 The excellent costumes are by Patricia Hamilton, sound design by Gabriel Groom, makeup by Chyna Leigh. Nathan Emmons was the Shakespeare Speech Coach. Other actors not already named include Gabriel Butler-Smith and Jeremy Webb. The Tempest plays weekends at NCRT through April 20.

 Pam Service, who plays Gonzalo, wrote an interesting piece for Tri-City Weekly on the experience of participating in the production. NCRT has reliably ensured there would be at least one annual North Coast Shakespeare production, but this year there are at least two more to come. Dell’Arte’s summer show will be The Comedy of Errors, and a revived Shakespeare in the Park in Arcata will produce As You Like It and a contemporary play. Auditions for the park productions are on April 6 and 7. More information at

 We sadly note the passing of Sue Bigelow Marsh, a playwright who provided a venue for new work at her Plays in Progress/World Premiere Theatre in Eureka. Especially in the late 90s it was an exciting place. With its demise as well as HSU cutbacks, a home for new work is conspicuously missing from the North Coast theatrical ecology.

 Coming Up: Ferndale Rep opens the musical Hello Dolly on April 19, Redwood Curtain opens the comedy Skin Deep on April 25, and HSU opens the drama Proof, also on April 25.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Tempest: Sources and An Anthology of Themes

Margaret Leighton as Ariel, Ralph Richardson as Prospero (1952)
Out of numerous sources from reality and literature, Shakespeare's alchemy creates a myth: of Prospero, who uses his learning to command the magic of an uncharted island through the powerful spirit called Ariel, while defending his daughter Miranda against the animalistic man called Caliban. It begins with a shipwreck caused by Prospero’s magic that deposits Italian nobles and their retinue on this island, including men who are part of Prospero’s past as the deposed duke of Milan. They wander to their self-revealing fates on his magic island, according to his plan.

 This myth has fed countless other stories and supplied metaphors for many discussions through the years, just as this play itself has been interpreted and presented on stage in many different ways.The Tempest is rare if not singular in that Shakespeare does not base it on an existing text.  But there are likely sources, even for the basic story.

Litcritter Northrop Frye points to commedia del' arte, in which actors improvised on a loose scenario with stock characters and an assortment of bits and gags.  Several of the scenari involve a magician living on a magic island, a stock character sometimes named Prospero, whose comic business involves keeping undesirable suitors away from his daughters.  Shakespeare knew the tradition, and it's likely that in the original production of the Tempest, the comic business involving the jester Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban was improvised, commedia-style. (photo from NCRT production with Brian Walker as Trinculo, Tyler Egerer as Stephano and Kenneth Wigley as Caliban.)

  Onto such a basic story, Shakespeare could add other layers.  Contemporary playwright (and Oscar-winning screenwriter of Shakespeare in Love) Tom Stoppard says that he knows he has a play when he has two or three ideas he can try to bring together.  This is pretty clearly what Shakespeare does.  Only he doesn't always stop at two or three.

An isolated island might suggest the tradition of Utopian stories.  It also in turn suggests contemporary voyages to the New World, which was already being identified with Utopian possibilities.  Shakespeare knew   about the new English explorations and Virginia colonies.  He even knew people involved in them.  In particular he read accounts of the shipwreck in which hundreds of colonists and the new governor of Virginia had perished, and then the amazing accounts of the unexpected survival of all of those who were shipwrecked.  They came ashore in Bermuda, had some political intrigues while there, and finally built a new ship and completed their voyage to Virginia.

As a showman, he noticed how natives of distant lands such as the Americas were paraded for profit as curiosities in England.  When a couple of characters in The Tempest see Caliban, their first thoughts are how to make money by exhibiting him.    
Chyna Leigh as Ariel, Scott Malcolm as
Prospero at NCRT

Shakespeare had literary sources for other elements of the play.  He read Montaigne’s ironic essay on cannibals, which is reflected in Gonzalo’s Utopian musings about a radically different society based on a direct relationship to nature.  He had The Aeneid for some sense of voyaging in the Mediterranean (mythic and otherwise), and he transferred a speech from Ovid's Metamorphoses, when Prospero gives up his magic with virtually the same words as Medea uses to invoke her dark powers.  

Another major source is..the plays of Shakespeare. In some respects it's kind of anthology of clips from his greatest hits: there’s the royal treachery of his histories, a romance in a pastoral setting, a philosophical protagonist, spectacle, magic, music, and a couple of clowns. But they are oddly like clips--there are conspiracies that go nowhere.  This might be the only Shakespeare in which there's a terrible shipwreck and several characters plot murder, but no one dies.

When he wrote The Tempest, Shakespeare was near the end of his theatrical career.  Some sentimentally suggest that he may have himself played Prospero, but he seemed to have given up acting some years before.  His plays, his acting, his financial interest in the theatre had made him a wealthy and respected man.  He collaborated on a few more plays but basically he went back to Stratford.  Unfortunately it wasn't a long retirement.  He died in 1616, about five years after he wrote The Tempest. He was 52.

So theatre was his life, and his plays reflect that in many ways he saw life through the lens of theatre.  The Tempest certainly is an example--and many would say, the prime example.

Some observers believe the play is about the "insubstantial pageant" of life as theatre, or the playwright/director as magician.  Others see it as centered on the issues of colonialism, or a meditation on nature, nature v. nurture, and human nature. The themes of revenge and forgiveness are often cited. There's evidence for all these concerns and more in this play.

Northrup Frye (in his book Creation and Recreation) finds in it themes that run through Shakespeare's last romances, particularly The Winter's Tale as well as The Tempest: a "double resolution" of "young people forming the nucleus of a new social order" and "of older people restored to their original lives through the arts..."  This is the key to a deeper vision, of integrating the timeless (the arts and myth, as represented in The Tempest by the masque of gods and goddesses, especially of the cycle of life) into a vision of the future.  It is "a transfiguration into a world we keep making..."

The Man Who Would Be Prospero

Around 1603, when London theatres were again closed because of a major outbreak of the Plague, Shakespeare and his King's Men company took up residence in a small town called Mortlake on the Thames.  Also living in that small town was Doctor John Dee, who for awhile had been one of the most famous and influential men in England.

Doctor Dee was a learned  man who combined studies in mathematics, cartography and astronomy with studies in alchemy, astrology and magic.  This was not an uncommon combination in those times.  Dee first made his name with the mathematics of navigation, guiding British ships in the era of discovery.

Like Prospero, he loved books.  His personal library was reputed to be one of the greatest in England.  He drew up a plan for a national library during Queen Mary's reign, though it wasn't adopted.

He later became a highly influential court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth.  He wrote on mathematics but also on occult documents.  He created and interpreted a glyph which expressed the mystical unity of creation, at a time when such symbols themselves were thought to have power.  He later delved more deeply into magic, seeking contact with angelic spirits.

But like Shakespeare, he also was deeply interested in British explorations, especially to the New World.  He was an advocate for British imperialism, and is credited with coining the term "the British Empire."

Doctor Dee eventually retired to his summer home in Mortlake, where he found his library and his instruments had been looted.  According to writer Peter Ackroyd, at some point he announced that he had burned his books on magic.

Dee lived his last years in Mortlake with his daughter Katherine.  He died in his early 80s, about a year before Shakespeare started writing The Tempest.  There seems to be no record of Shakespeare meeting Doctor Dee while they were both in Mortlake, but Dee probably was a topic of conversation in that small town.  Shakespeare would have taken note of Doctor Dee years before as a unique and powerful figure in the court of Elizabeth, .  It seems reasonable that Doctor Dee was a major model for Prospero.

The Story Beneath

All of the issues and themes doubtlessly at work in The Tempest--the meditations on nature, colonialism, Utopia, the theatre, cosmology and the meaning of life, etc., and all the vexed questions about the various characters-- seem to me to  be overlays on the basic story, the most compelling and direct through-line of The Tempest: Prospero’s intent to secure his daughter’s future.

 When Prospero and Miranda landed on this island, and while he used his books to master its magic forces, he encountered two beings. Ariel was a spirit imprisoned by the now dead witch Sycorax; Prospero freed Ariel on condition that Ariel would serve him for a time. The other being was Caliban, the animalistic son of that same witch. Prospero at first befriended him. Caliban taught him what he knew about the island, and Prospero schooled Caliban in basic European or “civilized” knowledge, hoping to humanize him. But Caliban attempted to rape Miranda (an act he does not deny—it was, after all, his only opportunity to sire children.) Then everything changed, and the enraged Prospero used his powers to torment and enslave Caliban.

 Beyond his rage, Prospero must have seen what this meant. His daughter was becoming a young woman (15 or 16 at the time of the play), while he was becoming an old man (now 50.) His powers would inevitably wane, until he could no longer protect her from Caliban. Eventually she would be alone on this island. What could he do?

The ship returning to Italy from Tunis in Africa was an opportunity he could seize upon. Evidently he knew exactly who was on board—not only his brother and the King of Naples, but the young Prince of Naples, a suitable husband for Miranda. He could bring the young people together to see if they were really a match. He could also magically confront the others with their offenses against him, and put himself in position to reclaim his dukedom and return to Milan, where he could take whatever further measures he could to secure Miranda’s future.

 This is mainly what he in fact does. He brings Miranda and Ferdinand together, and they seem immediately infatuated with each other. But he has to test Ferdinand’s constancy and his honor. Shakespeare himself (also approaching 50) had a daughter who made a bad match with an unfaithful man.  Shakespeare also knew that King James would be in the audience for the first performance of The Tempest, and James had his own daughter's marriage to worry about.

Prospero had to make sure Miranda would become a princess, and not a fling. That Prospero is conscious of his own impending death is expressed most beautifully in his “we are such stuff as dreams are made of" speech, but he also notes later than when he returns to Italy his every third thought will be of death. Even his final speech, when he begs for indulgence and prayers, it is because without his magic powers he is weak.

 Commentators argue whether Prospero was intent on revenge or not, when he created the storm. Some vengeance, or at least accounting, was probably part of it, and he certainly still harbored anger. But he took care that the shipwreck didn’t kill or injure anyone. He did inflict torments on the ignoble Italian nobles, and was jolted out of his distracted cruelty by Ariel, but he had this goal beyond revenge--he could turn his justifiable revenge into forgiveness that actually doesn't seem all that sincere, but it is politically very smart. Especially if his goal is to secure Miranda's future.

 The King of Naples thought his son was dead, but Prospero returned him alive, and with a wife. The grateful king became Prospero’s ally on the spot. Then Prospero let his brother know that he also knew of his conspiracy against the King of Naples hatched on the island, but would hold that knowledge in reserve. When he then boldly proclaimed he would take back his dukedom, his brother could hardly object.
John Gielgud as Prospero (1951)

 These were deft and very effective political moves, meant to get him back to Italy where he could serve his daughter’s interests. For clearly he wasn’t much interested in returning for himself. Here on the island he had magic power, derived in part from his lifelong study. Now he had to give up his power (the staff) and his knowledge (his book), for a life of decline.

It's true that in plays of this era concerning royals, the health of relationships reflect on the health of the state: a good marriage suggests a goodly kingdom.  There's some expression of this in the content of Prospero's magic show for Miranda and Ferdinand (which would have been done as a masque), when the goddess Ceres blesses the impending marriage, equating a fruitful royal couple with a fruitful land.

Yet I can't convince myself that Prospero cares very much about Milan except for his daughter's sake.  He wants the marriage to be honorable, perhaps so that there's no taint of a child conceived out of wedlock that might affect the royal succession of his grandchildren.  But more urgently it seems to be because he wants Miranda to have a stable, prosperous and fulfilled life.
Mariah Gale and Patrick Stewart (2006-7)

 Granted all the other elements of the play, it is basically about a father—a single parent—seizing the opportunity to secure his daughter’s happiness and her future. One consequence of seeing the play this way is that it establishes Prospero as the protagonist—the one who is most active and propels the action. This may seem obvious, but many productions over the years have tended to emphasize other characters: Caliban (as a victim of colonialism and racism), Ariel (relationship to natural forces) or even Miranda.

 These admittedly can be showier parts.  My memory of a production in Pittsburgh is of Caliban, of Libby Appel's production at OSF of Ariel.   But I’m convinced that’s partly because Prospero has been treated too passively. Yes, he’s supposed to be old and wise, but not inert. He’s the magician, after all. I’d like to see him as a livelier, more dynamic and active presence. He has anxieties and doubts, moments of anger, joy and triumph and satisfaction. Mostly he’s locked into his task, and when he allows himself the distraction of putting on a show for the lovers, he angrily cuts it short so that he can attend to Caliban, for he can’t let anything derail his complex plan and the activities that must be delicately balanced.

Producing the Tempest, and Prospero's Gift

Ralph Fiennes as Prospero (2011)
The expression “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” does not apply to productions of Shakespeare plays, and perhaps least of all to The Tempest.  There's a feast of characters, different sorts of action and themes, with drama, romantic and physical comedy, music and magic. But it's also his shortest play, with these rarities: the classic unities of action in one play on one day, and with the modern approach of starting when events have come to a head. (Playwright Arthur Miller used to call it "when the chickens come home to roost.")  Some experts even call it an experimental play.

(The unity of time and action, it must be said, comes at the price of Prospero's long recounting of the past to Miranda.  During it he chides her several times to pay attention, but he might be even more anxious about the audience's attentiveness.)

 The spectacles present each new production with creative and technical challenges. How do you stage the storm and shipwreck that starts the play? The displays of magic? The non-human characters? Then there are the mysteries of motivations and meaning that require decisions, which themselves ensure that each production will be different.

In creating the play, Shakespeare undoubtedly did what he usually did--he kept in mind the actors his company had for the various parts, and the place where it would be performed.  The Tempest was first done in an indoor theatre, which allowed for candlelight to help create magical effects.  A ceiling meant that Ariel might fly down on a rope or wire (which Libby Appel did so effectively in the outdoor theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in her final production as artistic director.)

At the same time, Shakespeare knew the show would probably move to the outdoor Globe, and so had to be adaptable.  Much of the magic in the play is accomplished through music--there are more songs in it than in most Shakespeare plays--and this is a feature that an outdoor theatre can even enhance.

So every production that follows must keep in mind the capabilities of the specific theatre: space, lighting, rigging, etc.  This all influences the interpretation and its expression.
Helen Mirren as Prospera in the 2010 Julie
Taymor feature film

The North Coast Rep production uses an earthy brown set with a central obelisk, and faux rocks etc. spattered with mathematical/magical symbols (that later play a more conspicuous part.)  This is an early decision for The Tempest--do you go brown or green?  Green suggests an island paradise, but brown suggests something more earthbound and at times bleak.  Or you can do both brown and green and add gray/black, as the 2010 Julie Taymor film does,with scenes shot on the volcanic rocks in the Hawaiian islands (though it is similar to Taymor's minimalist black gravel set for her first theatrical version.)  This permits the debate among the nobles as to whether the island is green or "tawny" to be a draw.

The Tempest more than most plays presents a rich variety of ways to structure a production. For example, there is time. “Tempest” comes from a Latin word that means storm but also time, as in tempus fugit, or musical time and rhythm: tempo. Prospero has a plan, and his magic is likely mathematical and astrological in part, so every act has its proper time, and the day has a definite tempo. Making time and the passage of time an overt and visible theme—with strange looking time pieces, etc.-- is a way of structuring the production. Especially for modern audiences, who are used to the “ticking clock” structure for literary, film and TV thrillers.
Christopher Plummer as Prospero (2012)

Another way (perhaps commensurate with the above) is to emphasize the alchemical connection.  According to interpretations that go back to Christian mystics but are more associated with Jung and post-Jungians like James Hillman and Thomas Moore, alchemists were not so much searching for a way to create gold, but exploring the secrets of the soul.  For these interpreters, the soul is the harmonizing function among body and spirit, mind and emotion.  The Tempest sets up these factors, as Ariel represents spirit and Caliban the body or the physical.  Prospero's magic is in harmonizing them, and his success is: Miranda, the wonder child, and her marriage.  The  word "soul" I believe appears in this play only twice, in the conversation between Miranda and Ferdinand.  In this way, Prospero's gift to Miranda is not only a safe and happy future, but the makings of her soul.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Tempest and the Time Lord: Shakespeare and Sci-Fi

"Shakespeare, in this, the last play completely from his hand, is inventing science fiction."  So writes the acclaimed Shakespeare scholar A.D. Nuttall in his now classic book, Shakespeare the Thinker.  He starts off his chapter on The Tempest with some dialogue between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.

Nuttall was referring specifically to an interchange between Prospero and Ariel, when the spirit goads Prospero into feeling some human pity.  Ariel has described how, at Prospero's instruction, he has driven several of the Italian nobles to near madness.  In lines before the ones that Nuttall quotes, Ariel suggests that "your charm so strongly works them, that if now you beheld them, your affections would become tender."

"Dost thou think so, spirit?" Prospero says. "Mine would, sir," Ariel replies, "were I human."  It is indeed a familiar sort of exchange involving the logical Mr. Spock, or later, the android Data, who has no emotions but aspires to be human.

Nutall also mentions the most obvious science fiction parallel--the movie Forbidden Planet, released by MGM in Cinemascope and color in 1956.  It has direct and intentional parallels to The Tempest: a Prospero figure (scientist who taps into the technology, power and intelligence of a vanished alien civilization) marooned on a planet with his young daughter who falls in love with one of the men who arrives from Earth.  The Ariel figure is Robby the Robot, and Caliban is symbolically the evil force that turns out to be the scientist's own denied negative side, his Id or Shadow, made immensely more powerful by the alien technology.  (There is a sense in The Tempest that Caliban reflects Prospero's dark side.)

The alien race in Forbidden Planet thought it was on the brink of perfecting its society--suggesting the Utopian theme in The Tempest--but its attempt ended in instant self-destruction.  Something similar happens in the Josh Whedon sci-fi film Serenity (2005) in which a solar-system government seeds the atmosphere of an idyllic planet with a chemical to make the population less aggressive, to further its objective of making a "better world."  But the chemical makes 90% of the population so passive that they waste away, while 10% become the fierce cannibals that still savage the system.  The name of this planet is Miranda.

Nutall relates the fantasy world of The Tempest's island to our sense of science fiction.  "Classic science fiction, as written by H.G. Wells, gives us alternative worlds in which things we have never experienced are imagined in circumstantial detail."  And it is true that for the modern temperament, it became easier to imagine an android than a spirit, a Spock than a sprite.  But after Harry Potter and the Hobbit films, and all the other popular fantasy stories of the past decade or so, we don't seem to find spirits and magic too unbelievable.  We can accept alternative worlds without machines.

Wells' first great story was The Time Machine, which made the transition from fantasy to science fiction while retaining mythic power.  It is however a more recent time machine traveler who provides another connection to The Tempest.

When the longest-running science fiction TV series anywhere (1963-1989)--UK's Doctor Who--was revived in 2005, each season featured at least one episode in which the Doctor and his companion visit a historical figure in the past: Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Agatha Christie, etc.  In the 2007 season, the Doctor (played by David Tennant) takes his companion, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) to 1599 London, where they attend a production of Love's Labours Lost at the Globe Theatre, and meet William Shakespeare.

These tend to be lighter episodes, though there is always a menace, and in this one they banter with Shakespeare quotes--some of which Shakespeare hadn't written yet.  There's a lot of historical accuracy in it all, and part of the plot centers on the actual mystery of whatever happened to Love's Labours Won, a title appearing on a contemporaneous list of Shakespeare's plays, but of which nothing else is known--no text, no accounts by anyone who saw it, if it ever actually existed.

Clearly the episode's writer, Gareth Roberts, relished relating aspects of Shakespeare's plays and life to the story, which involved aliens who manifested as witches, using Shakespeare's words to open a rift into which their evil hordes could invade and destroy the Earth.

But what to call these alien witches?  Shakespeare provides the perfect name in The Tempest: the evil witch who had imprisoned Ariel and had sired Caliban: Sycorax.  The name would then tie the adventure that the Doctor and Shakespeare had to Shakespeare imagining The Tempest:  the tale of a man with the power of a god (a thematic problem in the Tennant years on Doctor Who) who is accompanied by a daughter (a young woman companion), etc.  The battle with the witches would be backstory.  (In the episode, Shakespeare triumphs with the help of a word from J.K. Rowling, to further the magic connection.)

Unfortunately though, Sycorax was already taken.  Russell T Davis had used it the year before for the first aliens that the David Tennant Doctor faced.  Roberts had to settle for inventing his own, the Carrionites--descriptive but not Shakespeare.

However, he didn't lose out completely.  After the climactic scene during the only ever performance of Love's Labours Won, the adventure is over, and Shakespeare is sitting on the Globe stage the next day, chatting up Martha Jones. The Doctor wanders in from backstage where he's found a prop that he says reminds him of a Sycorax.  "And I'll have that off you as well," Shakespeare says, meaning that this word Sycorax is something else he's going to appropriate from what the Doctor and Martha have said and done.

So the connection is made anyway, and when Shakespeare writes The Tempest in 1611, he's apparently allowing himself to recall the fantastic events of 12 years before (notice that Prospero has been on the island for 12 years!), perhaps conflating the magician he knew of called Doctor Dee with the Doctor of Tardis, when a Lord of Time visited the great Globe itself, and left not a rack behind.  

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Audition for Actors (and a Horse)

Skyclad Theater (a project of the Ink People) in partnership with the Arcata Recreation Division and NCRT present Plays in the Park, coming this summer.  Auditions for William Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Sarah Ruhl's Late: A Cowboy Song will be held Saturday, April 6th, 2pm-4pm and Sunday, April 7th, 7pm-9pm at the Redwood Lounge in Redwood Park, Arcata, with call backs TBA. The shows open Friday, August 2nd, and run alternating weekends through Sunday, September 1st in Redwood Park. All roles are available. Rehearsals will begin in June.

 Roles available for As You Like It
9 Male
4 Female
11 Male or Female
All age ranges

Roles available for Late: A Cowboy Song
1 Male, age 20-35
1 Female, age 20-35
1 Female, age 20-40, plays guitar and sings.
1Horse: Yes, a real horse. Good natured, calm, good around crowds. Well trained and able to be ridden.

Please bring a headshot and resume if you have them.  Short prepared monologues are welcome, but not required.  Several roles in both shows require singing.  If you are interested in auditioning for a singing role, please be prepared with a short song. If you are interested in offering a horse, a photograph will do.

Please email or call (707) 834-0861 for more information.  You can also visit