The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Robert Faires, October 26, 2001, Arts

The Tempest: Timeliness on a Timeless Shore

State Theater, through November 4

Running Time: 2 hrs, 5 min

Here is this victim of a nefarious wrong, an assault that tore his life apart, and at long last he is standing before the villain who committed this crime against him, free to use the fearful power at his disposal to exact whatever justice he desires.

In the aftermath of September 11, the drama of Prospero, Shakespeare's "wronged Duke of Milan," has developed, like so many works of art, a new resonance for us. The sting of the attack this man suffered, the lingering outrage in his heart, the burning hunger to confront the wicked brother who left him and his infant daughter to die upon the open sea -- all of it feels so close now. While most Americans may as yet be unwilling to hear the Bard's message of forgiveness and apply it to current circumstances, still we identify with his protagonist in potent new ways right now.

None of which is to say that the State Theater Company's staging of The Tempest creates overt parallels to our recent tragedy or argues that its audience should respond to it like Prospero, opening its hearts to the terrorists sowing blood on our soil. Director Scott Kanoff wisely leaves us to come to any such connections with the play on our own. What he offers us is a carefully considered, vividly imagined, and vividly theatrical exploration of Shakespeare's text, sounding its themes of family, aging, freedom, justice, and mercy. Here, Prospero is no symbol for our violated nation; he is first and foremost a father, rearing a daughter as best he can on an isolated isle, seeking a love match for her in the noble son of an old enemy. He seems a very contemporary figure, especially as played by Arthur Hanket: informal, with the air of a modern businessman preoccupied with the bottom line; he might be a harried single dad juggling parental duties with that big project at the office he's racing to finish. The moral gravity of this project -- facing down the men who stole his life -- isn't always clear, but we can see that the modern sensibility Hanket evokes is deliberate.

That deliberate quality is evident throughout the production. Kanoff has labored to make this 400-year-old text meaningful to today's audiences however he can, whether it's using an Annie Lennox song for Miranda and Ferdinand's wedding dance, costuming Corey Gagne's Stephano, a butler, as an early 20th-century chauffeur, projecting video of Babs George's face onto an undulating wall of parachute silk to suggest the sprite Ariel's other-worldliness, or just having actors e-nun-ci-ate their lines. The thought and care invested in this is impressive and pays off in some striking ways, as with George's truly ethereal Ariel, the emergence of the King and his party through the wall of silk like ghosts, and the evocation of the tempest, with Hanket straining as he manipulates a miniature schooner while David Nancarrow's lightning stabs the air and the Gunn Brothers' thunder booms.

At times, however, this deliberateness detracts, robbing the story of spontaneity, giving it the feel of a pageant more than an unfolding drama. Humor from a droll Gagne and Damien Gillen, a dense but chipper Trinculo, goes flat in places, the sense of menace in Guy Roberts' Caliban -- his chalky skin and lower-class Irish accent suggesting the corpse of a Dublin slum kid -- or the murder-minded Antonio and Sebastian -- Steve Shearer and Michael Miller in fine form as a sneering, sneaky team -- evaporates. Overall, the production seems rather like Prospero himself: deeply thoughtful but so absorbed in its studies as to appear sober and distant.

Of course, in the play's closing moments, a moved Prospero becomes much more human and feeling, and so it is with this production. The innocence of Jenni Rall's Miranda and honesty of Ben Wolfe's Ferdinand makes the tenderness of their union affecting, and Rall's delight in discovering the beauty of a mankind Miranda has never seen, is sweet -- or bittersweet, considering the presence of her dark-hearted uncle and his malicious cohort. The moment of reconciliation between Prospero and his brother is likewise wistful, their handshake like the sealing of a deep, long painful wound. And the setting free of Ariel, with Hanket bidding farewell first to young Tiger Darrow, as the spirit's childlike manifestation, then to George as its adult embodiment, touchingly captures a parent's acknowledgment of his child being a child no more, but an adult able to leave the nest and make her own way. It is the playing out of a time-worn human ritual, and though the turning of the world makes this play timely once more, the heart of this production lies on a timeless shore, where wave after wave of humanity washes in, each a generation that crests and ultimately gives way to the next.

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