Thursday, November 09, 2006

Review of Villanova's production of "TheTempest" 11-08-06

An Imperfect Storm

Prospero, the sorcerer of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is consumed with vengeance, and uses his power to dictate events to this end. Many describe him as a megalomaniac, which makes it understandable that Villanova’s Shawn Kairschner chose to set this play within the confines of a Victorian era insane asylum.

However, Kairschner foregoes this understanding, instead casting Prospero as the chief doctor, who, in a play-within-the-play setting, directs the inmates and hospital staff in a production of Shakespeare’s play. The action then shifts back and forth, between the play overseen by Dr. Prospero, and the presence of Prospero himself in Shakespeare’s work. The play opens on a cluttered stage, filled with inmates milling about, trying on costumes, arranging the sets, and rehearsing their ‘lines.’ However, by the time The Tempest begins, confusion has already descended on this production.

The confusion only deepens, as Kairschner eviscerates the script, whittles away the characters, and substitutes, insanely enough, song, dance, and chanting, some of which breaks down into the gibberish and guttural whispers of the inmates. Some of this is very fitting, but beyond the scope of the play, which needed another hour, and that of Shakespeare. The Tempest is often absent, and only minimally evident. When Kairschner must return to the text, the intensity drops considerably in contrast, especially in the last act.

Brian McCann, as Prospero, is too fragile, too brittle to be believable as either the doctor running the inmates, or as Prospero dominating the players. Kristi Good, playing Ariel, speaks her lines beautifully, at times declaiming them like poetry. The remainder of the ensemble is similarly uneven, and a more experienced company could have achieved greater success. With all that Kairschner demands, this cast cannot overcome his ambitions.

However, brilliant touches flourish amidst this chaos. Kairschner’s interpretation depicts Caliban’s monstrosity as the behavior of a demented psychopath, superbly acted by Chris Braak. Trinculo hilariously speaks half his lines through a sock puppet, and Janus Stefanowicz dons everyone magnificently. All of the stagecraft is exemplary, particularly Mike Worth’s haunting original music, Jerold Forsyth’s lighting, and the dizzying and unending movement of the players in Kairschner’s staging. At the end of act one, all these elements combine to tremendous effect, as Caliban’s revolt descends into a prison riot that is both violent and electrifying. Moreover, the energy of the cast throughout magnifies every effect beyond merely entertaining.

Despite the problems, this is the kind of interpretation that a production should strive after. Most directors merely throw a coat of paint on Shakespeare, focusing upon some singular political theme, or historical period relevance. Kairschner’s attempt is bold and imaginative, completely transforming the work while still embodying its essence. The bars surrounding the stage, like the political intrigue that motivates the play, all form part of the “baseless fabric of a vision” that imprisons everyone. In this, Kairschner brilliantly remakes the world of The Tempest into the distorted reality of an asylum, where the surreal conduct of the inmates, coupled with the devolution of the text into song, define an existence in which the players truly become “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

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