As I was trying to understand the cause for my scratchy irritability when I left Spirits to Enforce — particularly surprising since I’d liked playwright Mickle Maher’s There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, which Catamounts staged last year — I thought of Aldous Huxley’s essay “The Rest Is Silence,” in which he talks about the role of silence in music and literature and the times when it becomes necessary. “All the things that are fundamental, all the things that, to the human spirit, are most profoundly significant, can only be experienced, not expressed,” he writes. “The rest is always and everywhere silence.” At such moments, Shakespeare “laid down the pen and called for music” — and, when music failed, relied on silence. King Lear, holding the dead body of his daughter, Cordelia, says one word four times: “Howl, howl, howl, howl.” The word almost demands to be followed by a silent beat, and most actors instinctively observe one: Lear’s grief is so terrible that language falters and dies under its weight.
It was interesting trying to apply Huxley’s ideas to the listless silences in Annie Baker’s The Aliens, which I saw in Boulder a couple of months back, or to the rhythm of sound and silence in the Denver Center’s lovely As You Like It. But there are almost no silences in Spirits to Enforce — and silence not only allows a writer to express the ineffable, but often creates a space for the audience to enter. This play’s wall of words, however, is impermeable.
The premise, as far as I could untangle it (the acoustics at the Dairy Center aren’t ideal, and — I have to admit — my attention sometimes wavered), is that the characters from Shakespeare’s The Tempest had dispersed at the end of the play, when Prospero abjured his magic, and apparently become ordinary people — but their spirit selves still exist within them as superheroes. There are twelve of these people (confusingly, most evolved from human rather than supernatural Tempest characters); they’re in a submarine for reasons I never caught; every one of them is on the phone — old-style phones with curly cords — soliciting money for a production of The Tempest they’re determined to stage. But many people on the outside wish they would use their powers to defeat Professor Cannibal instead: He’s the contemporary version of Shakespeare’s Caliban, though Caliban is also one of the superheroes. All of the superpowers are vague and peculiar: Caliban is The Untangler and Prince Ferdinand The Tune; the drunkard Trinculo becomes The Bad Map; Prospero’s evil brother Antonio (here Antonia, though played by a man) is The Pleaser. These titles are evocative, but I can’t figure out a use for such powers even in a fantasy world.
The staging is static: The cast sits in a straight line behind a table, speaking on their phones in turn, or all together, or a few at a time, but never to each other.
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The play supposedly speaks of creativity, spirit, desire, transformation and identity, but it didn’t to me. A lot of the acting is deliberately superficial and presentational: This is a work intended to appeal to intellect, not feeling. A trio of actors do distinguish themselves, however: Elgin Kelly is a wonderfully distressed and puzzled Silhouette, making finger shadows on the wall behind her; Rebecca Brown Adelman gives The Ocean an intriguing sense of spaciousness and mystery; and Trina Magness rivets with her funny, cynical Intoxicator. All three actors manage to work some semblance of feeling and idiosyncrasy into the babble: a pause, a hesitation, a mental stutter, a moment of relief, contempt or confusion. One of the best sequences is an almost actual dialogue between two characters: Ariel, played with charm and vivacity by Meridith C. Grundei, argues with — or at — Adelman’s Ocean about which of them can claim credit for the great storm that gives Shakespeare’s play its name and begins the action. Ariel points out that she actually called up the storm according to Shakespeare’s script; the Ocean indicates that it wouldn’t be much of a storm without her.
The rigid line of people, the conceits that never mesh into anything you can get your hands around, the endless talk — it all eventually begins to feel like a telephone solicitation from hell, one you can neither interrupt nor hang up on.
Spirits to Enforce, presented by the Catamounts through October 17, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 303-444-7328, thecatamounts.org.