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The Tempest

Turning a Page As Prospero

Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016, F–111&112 (center stalls)
Directed by Ethan McSweeny

Miranda in the bow of a wrecked boat looks back, smiling, at Prospero behind her in the bow and wearing a ragged white shirt.
Prospero (Patrick Page) convinces Miranda (Rachel Mewbron) that she was "a cherubim" when they were cast to sea by his enemies in Milan in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Free For All presentation of William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Photo by Ruthie Rado, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

His name is Patrick Page, and we have his throne. Really.

In 2004 Page played Macbeth at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) in Washington, D.C., which we saw. A year later at a props sale, we bought Macbeth's throne from that production. It has the knife slashes where he stabbed at Banquo's ghost and a reinforcement panel for the chair back because he attacked the invisible Banquo with such gusto in the tech dress rehearsal he broke the chair (we were lucky because Lady Macbeth's throne had no such damage and, though priced higher, sold first—no kidding).

So Page has a place in our home, as well as in our hearts and minds. He was an engaging Iago in 2005 and an arresting Coriolanus in 2013, both at STC, and played the Green Goblin in the Broadway fiasco Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark (he was the only performance the critics liked, myself included, and his rap is the sole highlight of the score written by Bono and The Edge). Thus, we were intrigued to hear that, in remounting its 2014, Ethan McSweeny-directed production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest for this year's annual Free For All presentation, the STC cast Page in the role of Prospero, replacing Gerain Wyn Davies. The original, reviewed on, was a fine production, but seeing what Page might do with Prospero was our sole purpose for attending.

What he does is worth seeing again, and again, and again. And maybe again again, even if it weren't a free show.

This is the Shakespeare Theatre Company's 26th annual Free For All. Once a popular outing at Carter Barron Park, the Free For All plays now are staged in STC's main venue, Sidney Harman Hall in downtown D.C. Hawkers stand outside shouting "Free Shakespeare!" enticing passersby, and tickets are also distributed in advance and through a lottery. In the show we saw, in which almost every seat in the 775-capacity theater was taken, quite a few people raised their hands when asked if this was their first time attending a Shakespeare play.

The production is pretty much the same as we saw two seasons ago, so having done a thorough review on McSweeny's staging, I won't repeat all that here (a link to that review is near the top of the Links Bar to the right). In addition to Page as Prospero, two other major roles have been recast: Sara Topham as Ariel and Edward Gero as Alonso, the king of Naples. For many D.C. theatergoers, Gero would be a bigger attraction than Page for all the fine work he's done in Capital Region theaters, and with his performance he does lift the character of Alonso to a more significant presence than I've seen before. He is more than a weary king wandering a desert isle in hopes that he'll find his son who was lost in the shipwreck. Gero gathers into his bearing the contextual whole of Alonso's situation: Having just married his daughter off to the king of faraway Tunis, shipwrecked, son and only remaining heir almost certainly dead, and even if he does find his son, little hope of getting off this island and back home. So many losses and fears, all of different types, and Gero's Alonso is juggling them all in his heart and mind, plus he's tired and hungry, and that old Gonzalo (Ted van Griethuysen, reprising his role from the original production) is prattling on cheerily with Barney optimism.

Topham plays Ariel much the way Sofia Jean Gomez did in the original, as a tween-age girl bounding between rambunctious playfulness and petulant pouting, though Topham gives more depth as the play transpires. The rest of the returning cast is solid, with notably improved performances from Rachel Mewbron as Miranda and Avery Glymph as Ferdinand, while Clifton Duncan further hones the subtleties in his portrayal of Caliban. (Gregory Linington and David Bishins as Antonio and Sebastian, respectively, are still a dynamic duo, while Liam Craig and Dave Quay as Trinculo and Stephano, respectively, have toned down just a bit their over-the-top, Robin-Williams-wannabe performances.)

That the actors playing characters directly orbiting Page's Prospero are the ones who have most noticeably elevated their performances is no accident. Part of that is Page playing Prospero, first and foremost, as a father. All that he is and all that he does has fathering as the foundation. Miranda is "a third of mine own life, or that for which I live," he says when he offers her hand to Ferdinand's in marriage, a line on which Page builds his portrayal of Prospero's relationship with Miranda. "Thou wast that did preserve me," he tells her when she worries what a bother she might have been after they were cast away from Milan."I have done nothing but in care of thee, of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter," he says to her.

Though that last line specifically refers to the sea storm he raised and seeming shipwreck he caused, it is a truism that governs almost everything Prospero does, past and future as well as present. He had been a kind and caring teacher to Caliban, but when Caliban attempted to rape Miranda, Prospero enslaved the islander and harbors a lasting rage. Prospero is as infatuated in the love union he's managed between Miranda and Ferdinand as the two young people are with each other. Nevertheless, he is stern in his cautioning Ferdinand to maintain Miranda's chastity until a formal marriage can be celebrated. As Glymph nobly delivers Ferdinand's noble reply, Prospero says, "Fairly spoke," which Page delivers with equal parts acceptance, skepticism, and admiration—he should have been so eloquent with his own future father-in-law.

Even his intentions of revenge on his enemies—his brother Antonio who usurped him with help from Alonso—seem driven by the fact that they robbed his daughter of a normal childhood befitting a princess. "Twelve years since, Miranda," he says as he recounts their history, and then, in one of those singular ways Shakespeare repeats himself, he says again, "Twelve years since," but this time with gall in his tone as he thinks of that lost time. Although it is Arial who inspires Prospero to forgiveness, even this development Page's Prospero does with his daughter in mind: how much happier her marriage will be if there is a fundamentally sound peace with Alonso, and with Antonio, too. This proves fortuitous when we see Mewbron's Miranda excitedly greet the shipwrecked lords as this "brave new world, that has such people in't!" and is looking at Antonio as she says it. "'Tis new to thee," Prospero says, Page using an ironic tone, but he's yet gentle, determined to keep her in such a mindset as long as is practicable.

The doting father of the daughter at the center of this presentation influences Prospero's interactions with the other characters, too. Glymph's Ferdinand is already speaking in respectful tones about Prospero even as he's carrying the logs in his trial of worthiness. This production has Prospero offering his hand to Caliban to lift him off the ground when he tells him, "as you look to have my pardon, trim it handsomely," a show of reconciliation. With Page as Prospero, there is sincere forgiveness in the gesture.

Most notable is Page's relationship with Topham as Ariel. As she encounters more humans than she ever has before—along with reporting on the behavior of the wandering lords, she watches Ferdinand intently and closely notes the sparking affection between him and Miranda, which is different from what she'd seen between Miranda and Prospero—she begins to appreciate Prospero all the more. Topham's recounting of the distracted lords, and especially the behavior of the "one that you call 'the good old lord Gonzalo,'" is gripping, not only for Prospero but for the audience, too. "Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling of their afflictions, and shall not myself, one of their kind, that relish all as sharply, passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?" Through Ariel looking back at himself, Page's Prospero sees that "the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance."

Topham's portraying Ariel as a petulant young teen draws instant comparisons to Mewbron's Miranda. Both, in their way, are learning about humans (nice moments when Mewbron is fascinated as she watches the physical gestures Ferdinand uses as he courts her, and the spirits teach her how to dance in their pageant). Both, in their way, are daughters to Prospero. When Prospero describes to Alonso how he lost his daughter in the last tempest, Page speaks with a twinkle in his eye (though Alonso, remember, believes his son is dead). But as Prospero's promised moment to set free Ariel, his "chick," approaches and then arrives, Page has a sad aspect. This seems harder on him. Perhaps it's part and parcel of giving up his magical powers, perhaps he hates relinquishing such free labor, or perhaps he knows that while he has set Miranda "free" by transitioning her from a wild place to her promised life of comfort, he is freeing Ariel "to the elements," where, as her previous experience indicates, she would be in greater danger. But these would be despotic interpretations (though father's tend to be despotic, don't we?). I think Page's Prospero is realizing how lonely his life has just become.

Upon setting Ariel free, Page's Prospero removes his duke's robes, sits on the rock that once anchored Caliban's chains to take off his shiny boots, and notices the audience—not for the first time, of course, but Page bears an "oh, right, you're still here" expression. And then he begins Prospero's epilogue. The speech is written as that of an actor still in character at the end of a play; what makes it so significant here is how this particular actor has displayed such exquisite stagecraft throughout his portrayal of Prospero, starting with his very first appearance, even before he speaks, at the rear of the stage, his back to us, hands upraised conducting the tempest, and then releasing the spell and giving in to exhaustion, clearly spent from the mental and physical effort his magic requires.

Spirits in white ragged clothes and blank faces surround Ferdinand, in white striped britches, codpiece, black boots, and black vest with his sword pointed forward
Ferdinand (Avery Glymph) is charmed from moving with the help of spirits that Prospero has called upon. The hint for the spirits' zombie-like appearances comes from Prospero's revelation that "graves at my command have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth." Photo by Ruthie Rado, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

His performance is full of such subtly insightful moments, dug up like pignuts from Shakespeare's lines and welded onto his character's frame: Moments like his emphasis in the line to Ferdinand and Miranda to "Sit then and talk with her"; in the way he pages through his book looking for the spell to "Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves"; in the way he realizes that he needs to wear his duke's regalia for the other lords to recognize him; in his weary and resentful yet eager and energetic bearing. He's proud of his capabilities, whether it's the way he brought together his daughter and her future husband—and how he just knew they would be a perfect match—or his coaching Ariel in her tasks. During the pageant, he sits to the side, admiring his work, conducting the music in self-reverie—until he remembers Caliban's conspiracy yet unfolding and breaks off the spell.

The Tempest has two great speeches: Caliban's "the isle is full of noises," and Prospero's "we are such stuff as dreams are made on." Both deserve McSweeny's reverential treatment, giving the stage over to the speaker and letting them play like arias in an opera. Page's interpretation of Prospero's speech is not to treat it as merely a prophecy of the world's end (Shakespeare's vision, perhaps: I'm always haunted by how a man in 1611 could write about "cloud-capp'd towers" as if he's seen a modern city skyline) but as a vision suddenly coming upon the powerful magician. As Page talks with gripping intensity of an earth melting into thin air, we see a kind of apocalypse that we sense could be coming closer to reality in a summer when one U.S. presidential candidate repeatedly questions why we don't use our nuclear weapons if we have them available to us. Why, then, should Prospero or we have much care in what our world becomes?

For our children.

Eric Minton
August 20, 2016

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