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The Tempest

These Be Brave Spirits Indeed

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia
Saturday, January 30, 2016, C–5&6 (center stalls)
Actors' Renaissance Season

Prospero in blue and purple robe with a block Egyptian shirt open to the chest points a gold scepter at Ferdinand, whose back we see in a tan vest and blue shirt.
Prospero (René Thornton Jr.) uses his magic to disarms Ferdinand (Chad Bradford) in the American Shakespeare Center's Actors' Renaissance Season production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.

My youngest son, Ian, wrote a eulogy for my mom's funeral in which he expressed the service's most profound and insightful statement: "I watched her laugh so hard she cried; I watched her cry so hard she laughed." The minister expounded on Ian's comment by noting that tear ducts transport joy and grief in equal measure.

William Shakespeare spent a career portraying such emotional juxtapositions in his characters and story structures. Subsequent generations of critics and audiences stuck in an either/or mentality haven't always appreciated Shakespeare's emotional roller coaster rides even though, hey, it's real life. In one of his earliest plays, long before he learned subtlety, Shakespeare characterized the "cry-'till-you-laugh" paradigm in Titus Andronicus when the lead character at the deepest pit of despair begins laughing uproariously. At the end of his career, having mastered subtlety, Shakespeare gives us Prospero in The Tempest, one of the most simultaneously benevolent and tyrannical, transcendental and existential characters in the canon. Actors and their directors often get stuck trying to figure out the man and what makes him tick; they usually fall back on either making him a comic father figure or a bitter despot—or they just let the gorgeous poetry carry the role.

René Thornton Jr. gives us all of Prospero in a superbly crafted American Shakespeare Center production at the Blackfriars Playhouse. It's all him and his castmates, too, for there is no director. This is the first presentation in ASC's annual Actors' Renaissance Season in which the company of 12 actors mount a five-play repertoire all by themselves—doing their own costumes, props, and blocking—and with only about a half-dozen days of rehearsal time.

So, did that just-read paragraph include an auto-spell gaffe? No, I wrote "superbly crafted" rather than superbly acted, though this Tempest is both. This is a company of not only highly talented but also intelligent actors, and as each discovers revealing aspects of his or her individual characters, they together create a whole that is in perfect sync, textually and visually—an ensemble of definitive performances of The Tempest.

Examples are simple and profound. In the finale when all the characters are reunited, Alonso, King of Naples, says, "These are not natural events; they strengthen from strange to stranger." Jonathan Holtzman so expertly times his delivery of this line (and the rest of the cast so trust his timing) that it generates a huge laugh from the near-capacity audience. A big part of what makes it so funny is how genuinely Holtzman has played the despairing king throughout the play, and even as good news heaps upon good news at the end, he's not quite able to shake his pessimism.

Then there is Caliban's famous music of the isle speech. Its special effect in this production starts with the casting. Caliban is Patrick Midgley, who has a Mr. Universe physique (obvious in his cobwebby, off-one-shoulder bodysuit), a naturally sweet disposition, and the acting chops to give the native islander the vitriol to vehemently curse Prospero, whom he calls a tyrant. Stephano the drunk butler is John Harrell, whose droll humor and improvisational skills mesh with his Shakespearean intelligence to bring out the ironic comedy of a Jeeves-type valet, dressed as he is in black tails, white vest, and white gloves. Trinculo is Aidan O'Reilly, an actor whose dignified bearing and keen sense of the silly is perfect for a king's jester, and he looks reminiscent of Batman's Joker with purple zoot suit, yellow shirt and tie, black fedora (with purple ribbon) and carrying a skull on a stick as his marotte. Ariel is Chris Johnston—more on his qualities later, but in this scene his key attribute is as a musician who, while accomplished on every string, woodwind, brass, percussion, and keyboard I've ever seen him play, can do Eric Clapton–quality work on a banjo.

He is carrying his banjo as Ariel enters while Caliban exhorts Stephano to kill Prospero and rape Prospero's daughter, Miranda. At the end of this scene comes the music "played by the picture of nobody" frightening Stephano and Trinculo: that "nobody" is Johnston and his banjo. As Midgley's Caliban, exuding passionately felt joy, describes the island "full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not," Johnston's Ariel stands behind him, head cocked in likeminded wonder, playing so gently and beautifully the part of "a thousand twangling instruments" that would lullaby Caliban to sleep; "and then in dreaming, the clouds methought would open and show riches ready to drop upon me, that when I waked I cried to dream again."

Johnston's Ariel, dressed only in a skirt of sheer black fabric with a fiery red feather boa draped like chaps from his hip and adorned with black starburst makeup around his eyes, feather tattoos on his arms, and his hair spiked up, maintains an air of childlike innocence as he watches and even manipulates the humans shipwrecked on the isle. Nevertheless, he goes about his business with a mature earnestness. He remembers well what it was to be imprisoned in a tree, left there even after the witch who put him there died. Freed by Prospero, Ariel is forever in the sorcerer's debt; yet, made up of the elements of nature, he yearns to be unburdened. Johnston, who could have relied solely on his appearance and musicianship to deliver a memorable performance, walks that acting tightrope skillfully, giving us a touching portrayal of the airy spirit.

The parts of Ariel and Caliban allow actors to use their imaginations to create something special. You would think that Miranda and Ferdinand have no such license, but Lauren Ballard and Chad Bradford, respectively, use vivid imagination as well as their Shakespearean intelligence to deliver show-stealing performances. Ballard forms her interpretation of Miranda from the simple facts of the girl's situation: she is 15 years old and has spent the past 12 years of her life on a deserted island with only Caliban as a playmate (before he tried to rape her). In a dress made from ragged remnants of burlap and netting, Ballard's Miranda is all of 15, doting, pouting, obedient until it doesn't serve her purpose. She also has the social cunning of a girl who has only a distant memory of being attended by waiting women and has seen only two men before, one of those her protective father—in other words, she has zero social sensibilities. When she first spies Ferdinand, Ballard's Miranda is all over him as if he were a puppy dog to be felt and explored (much to his shocked delight).

Miranda in a tan burlap and net dress, tied like a robe around the waste, looks up puzzled at Ferdinand, in blue shirt, tan vest and brown pants.
Miranda (Lauren Ballard) queries the third man she ever looked upon, Ferdinand (Chad Bradford) in the Actors' Renaissance Production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Below, Chris Johnston, with banjo, as Ariel. Photos by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.

Ballard speaks Miranda's lines with no subtexts, just the simple logic in what Shakespeare wrote. "Do you love me?" she asks Ferdinand so peremptorily it derails his courting game. "I am your wife, if you will marry me. If not, I'll die your maid. To be your fellow you may deny me, but I'll be your servant whether you will or no." With her hard-charging delivery of these lines, Ballard is playing all of Miranda's cards without coyness, nor does she speak these lines bashfully; rather, she demonstratively kneels to Ferdinand in a "let's decide this now" attitude.

Ferdinand—after stepping back from this fast-moving train—responds with growing excitement, "Here's my hand," and stretches out his right hand palm up for Miranda to grasp. In a gesture that sums up all that Ballard brings to her role, she answers "And mine, with my heart in't," but instead of taking Ferdinand's hand she copies his gesture, stretching out her right hand, palm up. As Bradford's Ferdinand puzzles over this, Miranda continues, "and now farewell till half an hour hence," and Ballard runs off stage without even a kiss, leaving a baffled, but bedazzled, Ferdinand behind. Playing Miranda this way seems such a duh! Yet, I've never seen it done like this in the dozen previous productions I've attended, and it is so right.

Ferdinand can be an easily overlooked character, especially if played romantically sappy and idealistic. But Bradford brings his exquisite physical comedy skills to the part of a young man shipwrecked on a mysterious, magic-filled island without a clue that he is merely a puppet on Prospero's and Ariel's strings. When it comes to courtship, he bumbles as much as he has stumbled about the island. Staying true to the text, Bradford brings to light things Ferdinand says that are just so not right for the moment. One of those is telling Miranda that "Full many a lady I have eyed with best regard, and many a time th'harmony of their tongues hath into bondage brought my too diligent ear. For several virtues have I liked several women, never any with so full soul but some defect in her did quarrel with the noblest grace she owed, and put it to the foil." Now there's a pickup line guaranteed to fail. Not only does this show Ferdinand's lack of interpersonal skills, it also hints at the age difference between he and Miranda and the fact that he is a crown prince who has "liked several women" but not yet suitably mated.

Prospero, therefore, has accomplished the perfect match, for his daughter and for Ferdinand, as well as for his own political purposes. No question, Prospero's ultimate aim is to regain his Milan dukedom and attain some measure of future security by forging an alliance of marriage with Naples. No question he also intends vengeance on at least his brother, Antonio (Ginna Hoben), and possibly the other lords, too, excepting the good and faithful Gonzalo (Allison Glenzer) but including Alonso (with his power, Prospero could exact some sort of revenge on the King of Naples without Prince Ferdinand ever being aware). Uncertain is the type and extent of revenge Prospero is pondering. I'm not sure even he knows—he's just caught up in the moment. "By my prescience I find my zenith doth depend upon a most auspicious star, whose influence if now I court not, but omit, my fortunes will ever after droop," he says.

Thornton is one of the most accomplished actors we've seen on any stage anywhere. Recalling his Timon, his Brutus, his Aeneas, his Ulysses, and his Titania, we anticipated a great Prospero. He delivers the great Prospero, starting with his first appearance: shaved head and beardless, his large frame muscularly filled out, he presents a figure of exotic otherness, transcending labels. An actor who has always had gripping command of Shakespeare's verse structure, his voice equals the power of his sorcerer's presence. Over the dozen years we've been following Thornton's career, his command of character has matured to better serve his command of verse, and he captures both the comedy and the authority in Prospero's lines and gives us the man's benevolence and tyranny, attitudes that can turn on a semicolon.

What makes Prospero tick? His own self. He's a man loved by his people but betrayed by his brother and a colleague king. He's a man who enjoyed being left alone with his books when he ruled Milan but has since had to endure the life of a hermit faced with both his and his toddler daughter's survival on a desert island. He's a man who can manipulate the elements and cause psychologically induced pain in others but chooses to rein in this power and use it only for his daughter's ultimate welfare. Yeah, he's conflicted. And so Thornton portrays a man of sudden, almost bipolar mood swings. This tendency is sometimes funny as when he blows hot and cold with Ferdinand and Miranda, and sometimes it is disturbing, as when he switches from kind to cruel with Ariel and Caliban. He longs for his dukedom back, but when he gets it he seems more intent on retiring, "Where every third thought shall be my grave."

Ariel stands topless with feather tatoos on his arm and waist, starburst makeup arond his eyes, spiked hair, and a banjo draped over his should, with the Blackfriars Playhouse audience in the background.This sudden admission in the final scene when he is at the height of his great achievement could well be the character's most revealing moment. Watching Thornton's Prospero from my own particular psychological experience, I see a man suffering chronic depression. "Sir, I am vexed," he tells Ferdinand. "Bear with my weakness. My old brain is troubled. Be not disturbed with my infirmity." That could be my life's motto. And it would explain Prospero's overall benevolent nature—including toward Caliban at the end—with his sudden, violent forays into deep-seated anger along the way. It fits a man who has managed to survive extreme circumstances—and successfully raise a daughter all the while—but who maintains an enduring sense of pessimism. He apparently has long counted on an eventual rescue; yet he harbors a profoundly existential philosophy.

The crux of this is revealed in the play's most famous speech that Prospero delivers when he suddenly, inexplicably dissipates the magical pageant he was putting on for Miranda and Ferdinand (played here as a burlesque show). "Our revels now are ended," he says. "These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air; and like the baseless fabric of this vision, the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve; and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep." The Thornton of lore would have made this a movingly, majestic poetical moment. The experienced Thornton understands what Prospero describes as his vexation and delivers this speech as the lament that it truly is—a vision of the end of the world which makes all we accomplish seem pointless—making it more moving being so.

Thornton's Prospero, Ballard's Miranda, Bradford's Ferdinand, Johnston's Ariel, Midgley's Caliban, Harrell's Stephano, O'Reilly's Trinculo, Holtzman's Alonso, the ensemble of the ASC Actors' Renaissance Season: these are such stuff as a dream Tempest are made on. When it was over, I cried to dream again.

Eric Minton
February 4, 2016

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