A green and dreamy “Tempest” at Krannert

We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep. [act IV, scene 1]

The theatre department’s production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is certainly one of the larger and more complex productions I’ve seen at Krannert in the last five years. The first few rows of chairs in the Colwell Playhouse space have been taken out to make room for a tired thrust space especially designed in collusion with the departments of architecture and landscape design. The production itself, like the space provide, is sprawling and seemingly boundless, breaking out from under the rigidity of the proscenium framework. The ship riggings for the opening storm suggest a mast larger than the eye can perceive—just outside our periphery and thus productively conjuring the magnitude of the storm’s influence. The production as a whole, like its design, plays with the edges of what we as an audience can perceive.

In terms of casting the project is uneven. This is something one can forgive of even graduate-level student (or semi-professional) performances. For example, I cannot get enough of Thom Miller. In seasons past I have looked forward to watching the progress of performers through the program—Samuel Ashdown, Neala Barron—and I have grown quite attached to performances by Miller and Neal Moeller in this crop. I enjoyed his playfulness in 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, and the surprising degree of measured tension with heartbreak in his monologue from A Normal Heart. Here as Caliban he pushes back against a number fo casting traditions in a productive way to make the role all his own. Caliban, per Colonialism traditions, is by and large played by black men of large stature in a bestial mode. As a white male, Miller has to reconceive the role already based on his given subject position: he still performers a thing not quite man nor beast, but rather than an Orientalized slave, in Miller we have a Caliban who is unmoored from the material realm altogether and occupys a space between possible worlds with Ariel. His is a sinewy and deft performance, as aware of the traditions in which he must intervene as Clara Byczkowski’s Twilight-esque attempt at Miranda is not.

Ariel, too, is reimagined I think quite productively here to deal with the realities of “performing magic” here as well. The part is fractured into a half dozen performers who are ever-present, either altogether or as individuals on the stage. They linger on the edges of the action, filling in the sonic landscape to varrying degrees. There are intermittent gecko-clicks that provide the sense of “island” more than any other element in the play. (Being from a rural part of Hawai’i myself, this was particularly resonant as a signifier of isolation in the particular echoing quality the gecko sound provides in such a big space.) Ryan Jenkins seemed to be the vocal leader of the troupe of Ariel’s, leading the small musical interludes and filling them with thoughtful harmony that brought texture and rigor to the soundscape that seemed on par with the Shakespearean lexicon with which it must always compete in this play. Particularly powerful was the moment when Prospero sets Ariel free: he is ringed with the Ariels as if being embraced by a clutch of munchkins that reinforces Prospero’s position as father—to Miranda, to Milan, to Ariel—above all else.

Like Caliban and Ariel, Prospero as the other magical being on this island is also played against convention. Rather than a wizened lord worn ragged and aged by his exile, this Prospero—played by the ever-vibrant faculty member Hansen Keys—was spry, engaged, wiry even. He is mobile and genuinely interested in Miranda’s methods of processing her first encounter with Man rather than only and overly trying to dictate that encounter. As a wily and less-overbearing Prospero, one can imagine him as a young duke fired by the possibilities of book learning and magic to the point of disinterest in his governing responsibilities. He energy propels the production, truly its centrifugal force as the playtext intimates but whose performances have often downplayed.

The rest of the cast seem—for lack of a better analogy—stuck in the island’s mire and muck. Shakespeare is difficult, especially in that he often intentionally upsets out ability to pin motives to his characters. But the lords and sailors are rather indistinguishable in that the hit their emotional extreme early and quickly with nowhere left to go in this two-hours traffic. Our new-found lovers can’t seem to look in one another’s direction, let alone look one another in the eye when they profess their love to one another. Trinculo is often a bright spot here, and Sarah Ruggles makes a good faith effort to wring the maximum amount of humor out of the metatheatric moment when we as her audience as implicated in being willing to drop dollars to see the strange and wondrous, but never seem to have change for the poor or genuinely needier causes. The clowns helpfully serve to bridge the gap in ability between the pockets of characters trolling the island.

And a critique of cast—something a training program only has so much control over—is all I really have. Trinculo’s line about our obsession with the novelly strange feels particularly pertinent for a production in which so much time was clearly spent designing the beautifully textured and ethereal set; the briny spectrum of otherworldly sea-spray for the digitized projection backdrops by Chad Tyler and Jowita Wyszomirska (which produces the desired effect much more precisely than even the real volcanic sea spray used in Julie Taymor’s recent Tempest); the period-accurate costumes that evolve over the course of the play; and the wedding interlude that seemed to follow the stage directions to the letter in order to produce the anti-masque sequence that, while aborted mid-way in the play, would have been as innovative in the court of James I and VI as it looks to us today: “Enter certain Reapers, properly habited: they join with the Nymphs in a graceful dance; towards the end whereof Prosperostarts suddenly, and speaks; after which, to a strange, hollow, and confused noise, they heavily vanish.” Like a piece of experimental performance art the gods of marriage, harvest, and death swirl and grace delicately to produce another sensation of an ethereal moment that does not go so far to other its audience altogether.

At the heart of this play, what makes it “Shakespearean” for me, is this degree of rigorous collaboration that seems to have directed its course. Early modern players and playwrights were often one in the same. They bought shares in their companies, made decisions as a group on company policy, casting, finances, and productions. This collaborative spirit with other departments and the attention to period specificity only insofar as to inform the meaning of the play rather than dictate what the play can mean is really inspiring and the kind of Shakespeare I would like to see a lot more of. Its particularly so for a play that makes available so many ecological affordances that are often ignored in the interest of feminism or colonial readings. (Please do see the dramaturgical note in the program below for details on the degree the department went to produce this ‘green’ production.) I think the dramaturgical influence of Sarah Boland-Taylor has likely much to do with this. The department’s last few attempts at Shakespeare have been spotty: a cleverly meta-theatric Macbeth was drowned out by a terrible nudist version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a painful kabuki-style version of Macbeth through the eyes of his lady. This production not only plays to the department’s strengths, but the strengths of the university more broadly in emphasizing attention to rigor in its labor, informed by learned research, and collaborating with other innovative departments. In truth, I could wish for no better environment for would-be actors to earn their Renaissance chops.

“Be Stone No More”: Collaborative innovations in Theatre History

Hide death upon her face.

There are few forums in which the discourses of theatre history and theatre praxis meet, and fewer still where they mutually inform. On a cool Friday evening, the departments of Theatre and English at the University of Illinois collaborated on an enraging performance art piece that put criticism and performance in direct conversation. The event Be Stone No More was equal parts contextualizing talk, comparative performance, and group discussion. Dr. Andrea Stevens began with a brief talk covering the state of the Renaissance repertory stage in 1611. This was followed by a performance of a scene from William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale blended with a scene from Thomas Middleton’s The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, the combination of which—orchestrated by Sara Boland-Taylor—aimed to test the performed female body. The Q&A component was then not situated as a space for intellectual overflow, but a formal component in which the audience as a group conducted a kind of group analysis of the repertorial comparison. Unlike anything I have seen, the evening gave context, primary evidence, and analysis equal time and weight and wherein emphasis was distributed between director, critic, and performer.

Repertory studies is increasingly a powerful methodology for organizing early modern drama and exposing the analytical capacities for its performance. It has often been confused with repertoire: the collection of strategies and skills an actor collects, perfects, and deploys over a lifetime. Repertory is a two fold concept: a) a system of performance in which a playing company rotated a series of plays on the boards, putting a different play up every day, and b) the collection of plays a company purchased, revised, and/or commissioned, curated into a set by a company (with varying degrees of intention) that exposes possible immanent readings. This performance piece provided a snapshot of what repertory is capable. By staging comparable scenes of still and silent females—one a statue, the other a painted corpse—the performance was an act of both recovery and myth-busting. Putting Shakespeare on equal footing with Middleton reveals and begins to recuperate the merit-worthy drama as yet under-examined, undermining the supposed pre-eminence of “the Bard.” So while we could never recreate original conditions of early modern performance, the evening seems to argue that we can in fact apply original practices as we know them in order to summon up thematic and ideological approximations.

Elizabeth Farren as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale by Johan Zoffany, ca. 1780.

Staging a slice of the 1611 repertory in an open forum like this presents the critic with the challenge of taking a leap into imaginative speculation. It is a leap that the current positivist discourse of theatre history shuns despite valorizing the rigor repertorial comparisons provide. In this case, where co-directors Sara Boland-Taylor and Stevens wanted to explore the fetishizing of the female as art object on the early modern stage, it seemed a necessary and productive move away from the entrenchment of the historical record. The most immediate realization in observing these blended scenes was the presence of a still, silent body. While in the seventeenth century the female stone/dead bodies would have been performed by boys between the ages of 7-17, here they were performed by a dancer and an actress, both lean and blonde. The dancer performed the stone body of Hermione and the Lady’s corpse, the actress her daughter in both cases but alive and as a spirit, respectively. In both cases, it was unclear to the audience throughout the scene whether the stone/dead body was going to perform reanimation, or continue as a form of inanimate stasis. This was especially powerful in the case of The Winter’s Tale, where Hermione becomes reanimate in a gesture that suggests her persecuting husband’s recuperation, but never in fact speaks in that reanimation from stone (if she was ever really convincingly stone at all). The effect was a blurring of that moment of change, questioning whether any change occurred at all, or as a third option, leaving room for individual audience members to interpret the conditions of change individually. While that suggestion might be made by a single play, the comparative and excerpted staging compellingly suggested the notion that a staging could carve out a polyphonous interpretive space.

In the end, two innovations came to the fore in Be Stone No More. In the first, the comparative mechanism highlighted the repetitive invocations of art, artifice, and the forcing of beauty on an object to create art, suggesting a kind of metatheatrics. What conditions of silence provide room for a range of interpretations? Was flexible interpretability a value in the early modern theatrical marketplace? To what degree were the King’s Men, in a drastically reduced and censored marketplace, cultivating competing and comparative resonances through parallel motifs and compositional strategies? In the second, the innovative event format of context, performance, and analysis provided an actual formula for scholarly and performative investments to commingle without having to first prove their respective relevancies to one another. And in an unexpected turn, while most of the evening’s investments were in undermining the Shakespeare Industry’s preeminence in period production choices, it was also a kind of recovery for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It’s a play whose criticism is dominated by the puzzle of the oft-quoted stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a Bear” (III.iii). In recuperating comparative and collaborative methods of assessing drama, across disciplines and between works, perhaps it will only be the methods of isolated textual analysis that are in this manner discharged.