Review: The Tempest by Emily Ann Theatre
by Michael Meigs
In this hottest Texas summer on record you could be pardoned for suffering a touch of cognitive dissonance when you decide to drive through the beginnings of the Hill Country, 45 minutes southwest of Austin, to attend Shakespeare's last work, set upon a magical island surrounded by the Mediterranean. Wimberley, Texas, is ranch country, and these days the rolling landscape is starkly dry. Even the EmilyAnn's illustration reveals the situation: Laura Ray, portraying magician's daughter Miranda, stands in the low waters of the Blanco River. These days the water is Prospero's refuge and the ocean is the countless miles of sun-toasted ranchland.
The EmilyAnn is a special place, however, something of a magic refuge all to itself. The play begins at dusk, so my wife K. and I had plenty of time to chat with the friendly folk at the ticket window and the concession stand. One strolls through a carefully tended garden on the way to the outdoor amphitheatre. My wife stopped and listened -- one could hear the distinct cheerful trickle of water slipping from pool to pool. With that prelude it became that much easier to enter the agreed meeting place of Prospero's imaginary island.
Artistic director Bridget Farias supervises the summer 'Shakespeare Under The Stars' camp for teenagers, and last year she instituted a 'grown-up' Shakespeare presentation in early fall. I remember a touch of Texas chill toward the closing act of Julius Caesar last October. This year's production of The Tempest is a bit earlier in the calendar and given our experience to date, we're not expecting any rain checks or cool evenings.
This cast is mostly Bridget's Gang, couples and friends who have been involved in theatre for fun in the Austin area. There's a nexus of folks from Texas State University in San Marcos, including Bridget herself, Judd Farris, Laura Ray and Molly McKee. Patrick Byers, doing a credibly aristocratic Prince Ferinand, appeared with the EmilyAnn in the title role of The Elephant Man. D. Heath Thompson, a regular here and with several Austin theatres, relishes the comic opportunities of Stephano the drunken butler; Austen Cabler is Trinculo, the fool, his foil. Robert Deike, often seen in comic roles, plays Antonio, the heavy who plots against the shipwrecked King Alonso of Naples (Dewayne Mangan). Wesley Powell Riddle does an impressively muscular and rubber-limbed Caliban who for me had strong overtones of Andy Serkis' Smeagle a.k.a. Gollum in Peter Jackson's films of The Lord of The Rings.
Prospero, the venerable magician who orchestrates the fantastical events on the isle, dominates our understanding of the play -- with his Act I exposition to adoring daughter Miranda; his sly conjunction of the two innocents who fall in love; his defeat of conspirators; and in the miraculous finale in which deaths are disproved, a dukedom is returned, and the magician abjures his magic. Prospero embodies the wisdom and acceptance of old age; many suppose that Shakespeare was symbolically taking leave of his own art with this work. Kevin Gates is visibly younger than the Prospero of this imagining, and he has a young man's clever-boots exultation with every trick that he pulls. More gravitas and some thoughtfulness in this role would imply greater wisdom.
Bridget's Gang has a good time with their Shakespeare, and they're happy to greet the audience at the conclusion of the play. Like the institution of the EmilyAnn itself, they provide this ranching and retirement community with a place of delight -- a magic island in the archipelago of the Hill Country around Austin.
Thoughts on Playing Prospero in this Production
a response made by Kevin Gates on his blog www.laboursomepetition.blogspot.com on November 21
So, I've hesitated to write this post. It almost seems inappropriate. But, I told myself when I started documenting my work as an actor that I was going to be honest, even when it hurt. So here goes.
My last post was about challenging expectations. And although I was writing there about choices I was making while playing Marcus Andronicus, that post was heavily flavored with subtext. I was still stinging from a not terrible but certainly not positive review of a production of The Tempest that I had just been in.
A preliminary question - is it in bad taste to write a response to a review? Or is it legitimate to get a closing argument? I made my case on the stage, isn't that enough? The issue, I guess, is that it bothers me that someone might have read the review who didn't see the production.
The reviewer in question felt that Prospero embodies the wisdom and acceptance of old age, and he felt my performance lacked the appropriate wisdom and gravitas. I disagree with the assumptions that the review is based on. It's certainly true that I did not portray Prospero with wisdom - because I don't actually think anything in the play suggests that Prospero is wise. He places his brother, Antonio, in control of his dukedom, placing him in a position to usurp the throne. Does a wise man lack such an understanding of his own brother that he would put himself in this sort of position? Prospero allows Caliban, a monstrous hagspawn, to share the same cell with him and his young daughter, until the beast tries to violate the young girl's honor. Not the best decision. But looking deeper than just the facts of the play, looking at the text itself, Prospero speaks in very broken verse throughout the play, he repeats himself... in short, his speech does not reflect clear thoughout the majority of the play. After all, this is a guy who has commanded graves to open and let the dead walk the earth. Doesn't really seem like a good idea. Prospero is powerful, but he is not wise. He is capricious and reckless. He is much like a Tempest himself. He is dangerous to be around.
Now, I made some choices with my characterization that may be unusual. I chose to show - for lack of a better term - giddyness in Act I, scene ii, when Miranda and Ferdinand first meet. Why? Because Prospero repeats himself several times during this scene, which I felt shows a high level of excitement. The words are not identical, but the sentiment of them is. Prospero says "it goes on, I see as my soul prompts it..." He promises to free Ariel for this. he observes that at the first sight, Miranda and Ferdinand have changed eyes. He promises again to free Ariel. He notes Miranda and Ferdinand are both in either's powers. I wanted a reason for the repetition. I don't think you can make the argument that Shakespeare was just being sloppy here - I think you find a reason for odd things in the text. And it was my feeling that the repetition showed excitement, and a lack of certainty about whether this was going to work. This is not Gandalf stroking his beard, this is a much more emotionally bare character.
Keeping that giddyness in mind, I put a gag in Act IV, scene i. Also probably an unusual choice, I suppose. When I was about to give Miranda to Ferdinand, I decided to break the two speeches up into three sections. Prospero says
If I have too austerely punish'd you,
Your compensation makes amends, for I
Have given you here a third of mine own life,
Or that for which I live; who once again
I tender to thy hand:
Here, I acted as though I were finished speaking and brought her hand toward his. Then, I interrupted the motion with the next part of the speech.
...all thy vexations
Were but my trials of thy love and thou
Hast strangely stood the test. Here, afore Heaven,
I ratify this my rich gift.
Pause. Start to hand Miranda over. Interrupt.
Do not smile at me that I boast her off,
For thou shalt find she will outstrip all praise
And make it halt behind her.
I do believe it
Against an oracle.
Prospero says, emotionally,
Then, as my gift and thine own acquisition
Worthily purchased take my daughter:
And then, the third interruption.
If thou dost break her virgin-knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be minister'd...
A cheap gag, maybe. But that is not a very interesting couple of lines without it. Not to mention the fact that starting that scene with levity provides great contrast to Prospero's moment of greatest anger in the play, which comes right after the masque.
The funny thing is... I usually try not to watch a version of a show I'm doing during rehearsal or the run, because I don't want to copy anything. I don't want to get up there and ape some other actor's great choices. But for whatever reason, the day the review came out, I watched some Youtube clips of various film versions of The Tempest, and I was actually quite surprised. In some of them, Prospero was played as the wise, old wizard, and to be frank... I thought it was boring.
The idea that Shakespeare was Prospero has gone around for years, that The Tempest was Shakespeare's farewell to the theatre, at least as a full-time writer. So I suppose there's a desire to have Prospero be a serious character. And while the epilogue definitely plays that way, I absolutely do not think that's the case for the play as a whole. The closest thing to a reference to Prospero's age I can find in the play is included in the excerpt above - that Miranda is a third of his own life. An ambiguous statement, to be sure, which makes one wonder what the other two thirds are. One possible interpretation is that he is three times her age. She's "twelve years since" plus "not yet three years." Somewhere around 42. Richard Burbage was 44, I believe, when he played Prospero in 1611. A recent American Shakespeare Center podcast I listened to placed the possible age of Prospero even younger than that.
At any rate, I don't think there's anything in the text that demands that Prospero be an old, wise man, other than the fact that he's a wizard, and when we think of wizards, we think of old men with purple, pointy hats and robes with stars on them. I think this is probably not the idea that necessarily prevailed in the Elizabethan era. Or at least, not what is represented by the text of the play. And my characterization of Prospero was based on my interpretation of the words on the page, not on a pre-conceived idea of the character.
So when I wrote about challenging the expectations of the audience... this is what I was actually writing about. I'm not so vain as to think that anyone who doesn't like my choices must necessarily be wrong, but I will say that the choices I made about how to play Prospero were based on a very close reading of the script, and were informed by the verse, by repetition, by what was said, how it was said, and when it was said, by what Prospero knew when he asserted fact and what he didn't know. I am absolutely willing to allow that there may be a better way to play the character. But to convince me would require an argument from the text. And that's what I think was lacking in the review.
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