As I stood in line for the ladies' room during the intermission of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's The Tempest, the woman in line behind me asked me what I thought of the production. I murmured something noncommital. She herself liked all the actors, she told me, except for Prospero. She simply couldn't understand what he was saying. I didn't know how to respond. From my perspective, Matt Penn, who plays the role, was the best actor in the production, the one with the clearest enunciation, the one most likely to say the lines as if they meant something. I wondered if the woman was seated way in the back, but we ascertained that her seat was, in fact, a couple of rows closer to the stage than mine. Puzzling about this later, I thought of a possible explanation. Prospero has the longest speeches, particularly at the beginning of the play, when he's explaining to his teenage daughter, Miranda, why they inhabit a magical and deserted island. Perhaps the woman who spoke to me simply didn't understand Shakespeare's language.
Attending CSF productions over the past six years, I've thought that this is true for significant portions of the audience. People appear desperate for familiar images, preferably images from movies or television, and they also want moments when they feel they have permission to laugh. Because they're not quite sure when it's okay, many directors have accommodated them, setting the plays in modern contexts, adding shtick and physical slapstick.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this. If Shakespeare is to survive in America, audiences must feel comfortable with his plays. But there's a difference between shtick that illuminates the work and shtick that distracts, clever shtick and dumb stalling. Conversely, there's nothing wrong with asking an audience to exert itself a little, to make an effort to bridge the gap between watcher and creator. You enjoy art more when you understand it: It's like eating Indian food with a friend who can explain the tradition behind the curry.
Watching that talkative first scene, I had been thinking about my grammar school teacher, Mrs. Fayers, who'd once used it to explain exposition -- that tricky device needed to inform an audience about what's gone before, the backstory. Here, we learn that Prospero is the Duke of Milan; that his brother usurped the throne and put him and his infant child Miranda out to sea on a leaky boat; that a good-hearted nobleman named Gonzalo secretly provided food, water and books; that once they'd washed ashore, Prospero began a study of magic and became a powerful sorcerer. Now he has arranged for his enemies to be shipwrecked on his island.
Mrs. Fayers was amused by Prospero's frequent exhortations to Miranda to pay attention, which she saw as Shakespeare's way of reining in a restless audience.
I have no idea if she's still alive, but Mrs. Fayers visits me often. She was one of those teachers you never forget, and it wasn't because of her kindness. She didn't concern herself in the slightest with her pupils' feelings. If we weren't paying attention, she'd hurl chalk at us, castigate us as "boring little white worms," or stalk out of the room. She was bitingly sarcastic, and far too blunt to survive a contemporary parents' meeting. But she loved the literature she taught us with a transparent passion.
Her love wasn't unctuous or reverential. She felt free to mock her gods. When Milton's Samson Agonistes groaned that he was "myself my sepulchre, a moving grave," she offered the limerick about the young lady from Niger/ Who smiled as she rode on a tiger. (They returned from the ride/With the lady inside/And a smile on the face of the tiger.) Impatient with the school's sanitized Shakespeare, she covered the blackboard with the excised words: piss, cuckold, urine. And so that we would understand iambic pentameter -- really understand it -- she made us recite Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes" while rapping our desks loudly for every stressed syllable: "Saint AGnes EVE, ah BITter CHILL it WAS." Reductive? Sure. But to this day, when I hear Shakespeare spoken, I feel the rhythm in my body, unobtrusive as a heartbeat, and as necessary.
Mrs. Fayers had a thrilling voice, and I still remember long patches of poetry verbatim because I can hear her speaking them.
Tempest director Patrick Kelly has avoided tricks. His production is carried on the shoulders of Matt Penn's Prospero, who towers over the action -- magician, puppet master, Shakespeare's stand-in and creator of almost everything that transpires on stage. The shipwreck that begins the action is nothing but a model boat dashed to the ground by his hands. He maneuvers Miranda into her love for Ferdinand, the son of his rival, and assures her that it's requited. He employs two magical creatures to enact his will: Ariel and the witch's son, Caliban, all brutish instinct. He's complex, anguished, angry, sometimes tender. And finally, when his enemies are completely subjugated, he chooses mercy over vengeance. But it takes a lot out of him. Renouncing his magic, a weary, saddened and diminished figure, he turns to the audience and asks for release.
If the entire cast were working at this level, the production would be a resounding success, but the acting is uneven. Offering her love to Ferdinand with a childlike lack of guile, Tara MacMullen is a charming Miranda. Christopher Young moves well and suggests flickers of human feeling in Ariel's inhuman bosom. As costumed, directed and performed, Benjamin T. Koucherik's Caliban is a little too cuddly. I can't imagine why an actor in his twenties would be cast as an old man in a professional production, but there's no way Jon Liddiard can carry off the role of Gonzalo, and this miscalculation exacerbates the weaknesses of a couple of other actors playing aristocrats. The theater's outdoor setting favors performers with strong voices and a vivid presence, and Ben Horner and the physically gifted Mark Jaynes do well as Stephano and Trinculo. The special effects are weak, particularly the dancey, white-robed spirits, and the direction sometimes feels a little muddy.
But given Penn's performance -- as well as some of the strengths of the festival's Merchant of Venice, and last season's magnificent Measure for Measure at the Denver Center -- I have to think Shakespeare will never really slide into oblivion. As long as we in the audience do our part. Say it together now: Our REVels NOW are ENDed. THESE our ACTors/As I foreTOLD you, WERE all SPIRits AND/Are MELTed INto AIR, inTO thin AIR...
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