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Produced by Shakespeare Theatre at the Lansburgh Theater to October 26

Skylight

By David Hare

Directed by Joy Zinoman

At Studio Theatre to October 5

Here’s hoping Shakespeare Theatre’s race-reversed Othello starring Patrick Stewart and a mostly black cast turns out to be a triumph of intelligence and cross-cultural sensitivity come November. Already a box-office boon for the troupe—it’s reportedly close to SRO two months before opening—it would be nice if it reached artistic peaks as well. Especially since Garland Wright’s insensitively conceived and executed production of The Tempest has given the company so deep a hole to climb out of.

All is not wretched in Wright’s Tempest. Before intermission, the evening is lush and grand, if a bit aimless. Also strikingly well-acted. The director begins unpromisingly by popping flashbulbs in the audience’s face, but he has inspired some terrific performances on Prospero’s gale-swept isle, where this exiled Duke (Ted van Griethuysen) practices magic on his daughter (Ana Reeder), his sprite (Wallace Acton), and his monster (Chad Coleman), while awaiting his chance for revenge.

Van Griethuysen and Acton are ideally matched as they dance a delicate pas de deux to the rhythms of Shakespeare’s verse, feinting, parrying, touching lightly, then sweeping apart through a hail of backward glances that speak worlds about the co-dependency they’ve developed as human master and spritely servant. Coleman’s feral Caliban is as ferocious and menacing as any 17th-century monsterlover might wish. And standouts among the island’s shipwrecked visitors include the amusing inebriates played by Floyd King and David Sabin, and the goofy Ferdinand of William Hulings (who manages to be appealing even when obliged to woo Reeder’s sweet Miranda while attired in a quilted powder-blue doublet that appears to have been fashioned from a mattress cover).

They’re all adept. Often more than that. But lord, what an ill-considered, “exoticized other” production concept Wright has them laboring to prop up. I suspect the director regards his decorous, Italianate, relentlessly and uncritically colonial take on this problematic story as value-neutral in terms of race and ethnicity—but it sure doesn’t play that way. Especially not after intermission.

The most obvious problem is the one that plagues any director of The Tempest: what to do with Caliban. The character is Shakespeare’s riff on the stories that surfaced in 17th-century England about the “stinking savages” British settlers had encountered in Africa and the Americas. It’s not a terribly flattering portrait. Think Shylock, but cruder. The Bard’s dialogue depicts Caliban as a misshapen creature, uncivilizable, stupid, sex-crazed, pagan, dangerous when liquored-up, and barely worthy of being enslaved by his European master. He’s also supposed to be smelly. “A fish,” declares Trinculo upon getting too close. In most contemporary productions, directors labor mightily to soften this portrayal by emphasizing the comedy that can be made of that last character trait and downplaying the rest.

Not Wright. In a majority-black city, at a theater that has made multiculturalism one of its central tenets for the past decade, this director casts an African-American actor as Caliban, attires him in a loincloth, gives his hair a Rastafarian twist, and treats calling him a slave and a monster as if such utterances had no real-world implications.

And he doesn’t do this in a vacuum. He then casts all the production’s other actors of color as supernumeraries, dresses them in Polynesian fairy-tale outfits that make them look like circus clowns, and sets them mostly to fetching fruit and operating puppets behind a screen. (Imagine the actors’ phone calls home: “Yeah, Mom, I’m doing Shakespeare. No, I don’t actually have any lines, but I get to parade around with a horn sticking out of my forehead, and in one scene I bark and wear a dog mask.”)

Actually, not all the minority actors lack dialogue. When Ariel fetches Iris, Ceres, and Juno from the spirit world to entertain the romantic leads with a little song-and-dance number, they do have a line or three. Alas, those lines are uttered from behind a curtain, and when that curtain finally rises for their song, they turn out to have been costumed by Susan Hilferty in flouncy nymphgowns that make them look like overrouged refugees from a bus-and-truck tour of Camelot. Poor Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Bev Cosham, and Felicia Wilson—dedicated professionals all—had the good grace on opening night not to look actively mortified, but how could they not have been? It briefly occurred to me that the director may have intended some of this to be funny, but if he did he miscalculated. It plays, at best, as second-rate spectacle.

There is, as you’ll have gathered by now, a rigidly observed color line in this Tempest, with white actors playing every speaking part except Caliban and those three singing nymphs, and actors of color standing around on the sidelines looking, well…colorful. Since it wouldn’t have been difficult to mix a minority cast member in among the shipwrecked noblemen, or place a Caucasian performer among the Polynesian fruit-carriers, you have to figure Wright has something in mind with this casting. But whatever it is, he has kept it to himself. His comments in the Shakespeare Theatre’s newsletter, Asides, have to do with the tensions raging in Prospero as an artist and a human being, about the power of art, about the “integration”—I kid you not—”of intellect and imagination” in that marvelous, colonialist Renaissance, when European expansionism was running riot over dark-skinned peoples on three continents.

In fact, he’s gone out of his way to make the evening contextless—with John Arnone’s elegant, stately-homes-of-England library setting blending with Hilferty’s fanciful costumes and Howell Binkley’s vaguely expressionist lighting effects to create a mishmash of styles that defies easy categorizing.

But there is a context for audiences, who live in a here-and-now where racial segregation, whether onstage or in life, suggests certain habits of mind. Ignoring that context when staging a play as thorny as The Tempest can only be counted as myopic. It’s easy to conceive of ways in which a director might use color-conscious casting to illuminate the play freshly. But he can’t have it both ways, practicing color-conscious casting and then using it to depict a world of white aesthetes, amused and patronizing toward their dark-skinned servants and entertainers, without establishing some sort of critical distance.

Coleman is terrific as Caliban—athletic, empathetic, modulated in ways that make the Bard’s “monster” into a nuanced young man who’s chafing at his chains. Van Griethuysen is equally good as Prospero—majestic and chilly, caring and vengeful, a slave-owner who thinks often and cogently about freedom. I’d love to see them in a Tempest that addressed the way their relationship connects to the world around them.

When Kyra, an idealistic schoolteacher living in a grimy neighborhood in North London, enters her chilly apartment at the outset of David Hare’s acclaimed drama, Skylight, the first thing she does is leave the door open. She doesn’t try to shut it and fail through absentmindedness, she just leaves it open.

Shortly thereafter, she goes into the bathroom and starts running a bath, and while she’s doing that, a young man in a leather coat enters through the open door. When she comes back out of the bathroom, she is startled by him and screams. He says he’s sorry, and as it becomes clear that they know each other, he advances into the room. He does not shut the door behind him. Kyra crosses to put something on her desk, practically bumping into the door on her way, but she does not shut the door either. Then she goes back to where she was before, and by way of gently criticizing her visitor, suggests that he shut it.

I go into all this detail because I don’t understand the behavior of either character with regard to that door. Or rather, because I don’t find it realistic. If Kyra were afraid of the young man, she might leave the door open as an escape route. But she’s not. If the man were blocking her access to the door, she might be unable to gracefully close it. But he’s not. If they were talking about other things and simply got distracted, they might forget to close it. But they’re not. And slowly, I came to the conclusion that the door was staying open so that Kyra could make a point to her guest that the author wanted her to make.

Now, this is not an ideal beginning for a production that is going to make a big deal about unities of place and time and that will indulge in kitchen-sink realism so exacting that a spaghetti dinner will be cooked and served onstage. And it explains, in a roundabout way, why an audience is likely to have trouble buying the romance between Kyra and the young man’s father when he comes on in the next scene. For while Hare has labored to combine the political passions that are always present in his plays with the personal passions of Kyra and her businessman ex-beau in Skylight, he has left some seams showing, and Joy Zinoman’s production at Studio doesn’t always manage to tuck stage business around them in a way that camouflages their baldness.

What Hare is dealing with is a love affair between a woman who reaches out constantly to help people and a man so concerned with himself that his primary thought as his wife lies dying of cancer is that she hasn’t had the good grace to forgive his transgressions. Tom, played by Ed Gero with crass, bleary-eyed bluster and an oddly Jackie Gleasonish grace, gets most of the zingers, because the author doesn’t actually like his positions very much. “There’s plenty of injustice,” he shouts at Kyra when she tells him of some cause she’s involved in. “The question is, why do you go out and look for it?”

Kyra, played by Kimberly Schraf with increasing fire as the evening progresses, can give as good as she gets. But as she fends Tom off, then reins him in, then fends him off again, it starts to seem as if there’s more heat in the passionate rush of their class-based arguments than in the more carnal passions supposedly smoldering between them. Jeff Thomas Gardner seems a bit mature to be playing Tom’s 18-year-old son, Edward, but he leaps at the part gamely enough. Technical effects, from the light streaming through grimy window panes, to the snow falling gently outside, to the sax solos in Scott Burgess’ original score are, as usual at Studio, precisely right.

None of which can quite make the play live up to its billing from London and New York as a “soaring romantic tragedy.” At Studio, the language sometimes soars, but the romance never quite seems to get off the ground.CP