By stretching blazing white spandex over every visible surface, Tony Cisek has turned the stage of the Folger’s Elizabethan Theatre into the blankest of blank canvasesthe perfect place for director Joe Banno to turn a similar trick with The Tempest.
Shakespeare’s storm-tossed narrative concerns the largely comic revenge taken by Prospero, a magician and deposed duke, on the folks who have exiled him and his daughter, Miranda, to a sprite-infested island. When the new duke, Antonio, makes the mistake of sailing too close, Prospero conjures up a storm to wreck his ship, then casts a romantic spell over Antonio’s son, Ferdinand, causing the youth to fall in love with Miranda and leading to all sorts of comic complications. There’s also a subplot about Prospero’s feral slave, Caliban, who mistakes two drunken sailors for gods and tries to convince them to kill his master.
Not long ago, The Tempest was given a noxious colonialist spin at the Lansburgh, with European aristocrats stumbling around an African-inflected West Indies isle. At the Folger, it is less grandlybut more intriguinglytreated by Joe Banno, the Washington City Paper’s opera critic, as a divorced father’s anxious nightmare before his daughter’s wedding.
As the lights fade in the auditorium, a tuxedoed Prospero (Michael Tolaydo) wanders distractedly onto Cisek’s white-on-white setting clutching a wedding gift for his daughter, then sinks into a white armchair. Dozing off, he imagines a gorgeous stewardess (Elizabeth Townley) doping the captain of her cruise ship (or, perhaps, airliner) and taking over the controls herself. As passengers scream, she crashes onto a beach, prances brightly over to the now-awake dreamer, strips down to a clingy green jumpsuit, and announces that she’s done his bidding. Turns out, she’s Ariel, the island’s chief sprite, and the folks she’s deposited on the beach are Prospero’s usual antagonists, slightly warped by his fever dream. Antonio is now Antonia, Prospero’s ex-wife, for instance, and his trusted friend Alonso is her new hubby.
When Caliban (Kit Norris) enters pushing a vacuum cleaner and spouting insolent-maid chatter, the general outlines of what will follow become clear, though not so crystalline that fans of the Bard’s dark comedy won’t feel as if they’re rediscovering the play as each new scene begins. Banno has pruned incidents that don’t fit his concept, and rearranged lines in contexts that alter their impact in startling ways. He’s also created an evocative, experience-changing, 10-minute coda to bring the magical realm of the play back in sync with the real world at the final curtain and make audiences rethink almost everything they’ve just seen. Risky, but it pays off.
On opening night, the performers seemed to be straining for laughswhich took the edge off a few scenes, especially some low-comedy bits involving the drunken louts and Norris’ cleverly cross-gendered Caliban. But given the talent on stage, the strains are likely to disappear as the run progresses, and all other aspects of the evening are decidedly sharp. Tolaydo’s commanding Prospero brings a measured pace and enormous gravity to every scene he’s in. Also fine are Jon Cohn and Maia DeSanti as the evening’s guileless young lovers, though overcoming a scenelong phallus joke that would be overbroad if reduced to a throwaway requires every ounce of sweetness they can muster.
And the design work is terrific, from the mood-setting rainbows with which lighting designer Dan Covey splashes the all-white stagefuchsia for a reverie, orange for conspiracy, aqua for loveto the burbling original score with which Scott Burgess backs the contemporary pop songs Banno has interpolated into the script. If the result isn’t the most tempestuous Tempest of recent vintage, it’s still one of the most cleverly designed and executed.
At Round House Theatre, Jerry Whiddon has done a fine enough job of bringing the cartoon characters in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown to life that I can’t help feeling churlish for wondering why he’s bothered.
The short sketches and musical numbers, played out before empty cartoon frames (again designed by Tony Cisek, who appears to be milking blankness for all it’s worth this week), are a reasonably precise stage equivalent of the comic strip. What’s being staged at Round House is last year’s Broadway version of the show, rather than 1967’s intimate off-Broadway revue, but apart from fuller orchestrations, I’d be hard pressed to articulate any differences.
The cast ranges from adequate to downright sparkly, the design work is intelligent, and the staging is undeniably cheery, so for those who crave undemanding theatrical fare, the evening probably qualifies as a pleasant pick-me-up. For the rest of us, it’s a bit trying…but maybe there aren’t that many of the rest of us buying tickets anymore.
I’m not sure what to make of the recent scramble by regional theatersvenues created as part of a movement to counteract the insipidity of Broadwayto produce the sort of fare audiences had mostly been accustomed to consuming in tandem with a buffet and a couple of planter’s punches for the last couple of decades. Perhaps it’s just hard to fight box-office success. Last year, Guys and Dolls sold out to the rafters at Arena Stage and Godspell and The Fantasticks did the same at Round House. This season, in addition to Snoopy and his pals in Silver Spring, audiences will have a chance to catch Man of La Mancha at Olney and Gypsy at Signature.
Is it snobbery to note that there’s a difference between simply resurrecting Broadway smashes of that sort and reinterpreting a rarely mounted Marx Bros. opus or a Sondheim oddity? Perhaps. In any event, I should confess that I did smile a few times at Round House, mostly at Jason Gilbert’s cherubic Linus and Donna Migliaccio’s grimly determined Lucy. Otherwise, I found the evening thoroughly disheartening. CP