Director Tony Taccone. magus of the Berkeley Rep, doing a guest turn this year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), launches his new production of “The Tempest” not quite in a teapot but at least in a washtub. In the opening scene, he has his protagonist, the exiled duke Prospero (Denis Arndt) plunge up to the elbows in an onstage bassinet, violently drowning a model caravel like a baby throwing a bathtime tantrum.
What we’re witnessing is a Shakespearean drone attack. From the safety of his castaway cave, through the remote agency of his spirit minions, Prospero — an accomplished sorcerer — is wreaking a storm at sea that will scuttle a real-world ship, scatter his enemies and bring them within the ambit of his enhanced interrogation. But not to worry, he assures his bleeding-heart liberal of a daughter, Miranda (Alejandra Escalante): this is a surgical strike. No collateral damage; “not so much perdition as an hair/Betid to any creature in the vessel…”
This creepily bloodless vendetta sets the tone for Arndt’s Prospero. He’s a consummate geek, peevish and fastidious, arrogant in his technological mastery, but almost Aspie in his avoidance of touch and eye-contact. Instead of a wizardly baritone, he speaks in a nerdy tenor — faithful to his interpretation of the character, although sometimes at the expense of Shakespeare’s rhetorical riches.
Even scenic designer Daniel Ostling’s stage set looks geeky: a steeply canted ramp, smooth and featureless, like a Nike swoosh or some Steve Jobsian i-Thing. Equally smooth and featureless (not to mention hairless and shirtless) is Prospero’s choreographic ensemble of spirit minions. They go about their magic errands with the silent, graceful gravitas of the visible/invisible stagehands in traditional Japanese drama. (No coincidence, that: movement director John Sipes has studied under Noh-influenced mime-master Tadashi Suzuki and drew upon the Ankoko-Butoh, or “Dance of Darkness,” movement of post-World War II Japan).
In contrast to all this Zen simplicity, Prospero’s shipwrecked vendetta victims — a king, a duke, a crown prince and assorted lordlings — look all the more lost in their period finery. Costume designer Anita Yavich has fitted them out with swords and capes and bucklers, none of which avail against their unseen tormentors. In their Jacobean plumage, they’re ripe for the plucking.But they don’t quite grasp their own pluckability at least not at first. Instead, they busy themselves with romance, intrigue and philosophic reverie.
Prospero’s dukedom-usurping brother (Jeffrey King) plots regicide with the presumptive heir apparent to the kingly throne (Armando Duran). The heir unapparent, Crown Prince Ferdinand (Daniel Jose Molina), presumed dead by the rest of the party, believes himself to be the sole survivor. This leaves him free to mourn “the king my father’s wrack” while plying his lovestruck suit of fair Miranda.
A kindly, if somewhat doddering, courtier (Bruce Young) maps out a pacifist, communal, utopian vision of how he’d run things “had I plantation of this isle.” Meanwhile, a different, rummier, vision of utopia animates a pair of clownish subalterns (Barzin Akhavan and Richard Ellmore), who conspire with Prospero’s slave, Caliban (Wayne T. Carr), to murder the wizard and wrest control of the island.
All these supporting performances are very strong, but Carr’s onstage density — daubed in green and naked but for a breech-clout — makes him the gravitational center of any scene he appears in. Even his slapstick is fueled by a seething resentment at his subjugation. He counters Prospero’s waspish epithets with great, sonorous pentameter curses of his own.
But he’s not the only show-stealer. To thwart the plotters and facilitate the lovers, Prospero turns to his sprite-in-chief, Ariel. In this production, the character is transgendered in the vastly talented person of Kate Hurster. She serially transforms herself into a typhoon, a dog pack, a theatrical impresario, a wedding planner and a harpy — all with a feline amalgam of playfulness and earnest ferocity, a house-cat with a distinctly feral undertone. Even her make-up is cat-like, with a frizz of red hair and a tiger stripe down the mid-line of her face to “frame her fearful symmetry.”
Unlike most house-cats of my acquaintance, though, this Ariel is able to school her master in the finer points of empathy. After repeated rounds of shape-shifting bamboozlement, the sprite has left the three topmost royals paralyzed with fear and guilt and the rest of their party “brimfull of sorrow and dismay.” She reports back to Prospero that “if you now beheld them, your affections would become tender…mine would, sir, were I human.”
This at last shames him into letting “my nobler reason, ‘gainst my fury …take part.” He frees his enemies from his spells and gives up geekery for good: “this rough magic I here abjure,..I’ll break my staff …[and] drown my book.” Thus freed of his own autistic crust, at last he can meet the objects of his obsession face-to-face, amidst heart-warming speeches of reconciliation.
But, for me, the most affecting parts of the denouement was a non-verbal interaction that Taccone and his actors spliced into the text without any Shakespearean by-your-leave. Caliban appears before his master fully expecting to be “pinched to death,” but instead Prospero drapes him in his cast-off magician’s cloak and wordlessly hands over the island to him. It’s the first time the “man-monster” ever straightens out from his cringing crouch to stand eye-to-eye with the ex-wizard.
If this were a Hollywood scenario, that would lay the groundwork for guaranteed follow-on, “Tempest II.” But, since it’s repertory theater, we’ll have to play out the sequel in our own minds — no doubt better, anyway, and well worth the trip to Ashland to take in this thought-provoking production.
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.