The Tempest – Swept Away
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
*This is The Bad Oracle’s “family matters” disclosure: someone involved in this production is related to or the partner of a member of the staff of The Bad Oracle.
This is an exception to our usual disclaimer, which is why it is here.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a weird beast. It’s tragedy and comedy and mysticism all Frankensteined together into a largely incoherent plot where half of the threads appear to be forgotten by the end. A whole bunch of guys are on a boat, the most important of them being Alonso (Sarah Lamar), because he’s the King of Naples. He’s got his son, Ferdinand (Jonathan Jacobs), up in there too. The ship gets wrecked by a huge storm, a tempest, if you will, magically called into being by Prospero (Aladrian C. Wetzel), the former Duke of Milan, who has become a sort of sorcerer. Prospero is currently living on an island with his young teenage daughter, Miranda (Katharine Vary). He’s pissed because a decade or so ago, his brother Antonio (Betse Lyons) stole his position and banished him to an isle full of monsters and spirits, most of which he’s made his slaves, so that’s fine, but still sucks. Miranda and Ferdinand make googly eyes at one another, some drunken cads wandering around plot to overthrow Prospero and it all turns out more or less okay. Shrug.
Director Evan Moritz makes it clear from the very beginning that much of this exists, for him, as a coathanger for the intense design and movement work of the production. He doesn’t seem overly interested in examining the text or giving us a strong point of view on it (and, in fact, his directors note mentions that he finds Shakespeare “much more rewarding to perform than to dissect”). So let’s talk about that design for a moment. This is an extremely layered show, from the gorge Jem-and-the-Holograms-meets-lesser-Game-of-Thrones-clan costumes by Susan MacCorkle and Sarah Lamar to the rock-venue-style colored lights by Chris Allen to the 80s-computer-game-inspired graphics by video designer Tom Boram. There’s also a giant platform set stuffed into the tiny playing space (the audience sits around it and looks straight up at the players) by Douglas Johnson, full-bodied puppets and masks from Tryfuss Puppet Collective and an EDMish score by Rjyan Kidwell.
Each of these elements is beautiful. Really and truly beautiful. Put all together, however, and it begins to feel like, well, a lot, especially over a two-and-a-half-hour run time. Annex has consistently raised the bar over the last few years, stretching the limit of what we think of as “community” stage and blurring the line between theatrical design and stand-alone visual art. For the first time in a long time with Annex, though, I confess that the design of The Tempest struck me as…kind of busy. There’s so much going on that insanely great individual moments get lost, like a sequence where Prospero strides across the stage with his large cape dragging on the ground behind him, getting longer and longer, covering the world, that is absolutely breathtaking. But it just kept nagging at me, somehow. I felt that the design work (while, again, fucking astonishingly exquisite) was functioning more to obscure the text rather than support it. That because Moritz sensed a void in the play’s import or meaning, he rushed in to fill it with all the things. I started to think: if this was stripped all the way down to actors in tunics in a black box, would it feel purposeful? Would it carry weight? Would it be exciting? I don’t know.
This is not to say that there are not extraordinary performances here. Wetzel again provides us with the meaning of statuesque as Prospero. She brings gravitas to the proceedings, she is cool to the point of cold, in control, collected. I particularly liked her last sequence, where the duke is giving up his magic, bowing out, as it were. For the first time in the show, Wetzel loosens her erect posture, curling into herself, letting us see how old Prospero is. I surprised myself by crying. Katharine Vary takes a unique look at Miranda, blending naivete with bloody knives in a way that makes you think about the fact that this little Lady has been catching her own food for quite some time. Her movement is fascinating, her physicality the most true and successful exploration of Meyerhold (an acting technique that Moritz employs and you can Google for all I care) in the play, at least to my mind. And she’s funny, too, especially as she spies some sweet specimens of manhood.
Speaking of funny, Moritz does best when teasing out the comedic aspects of the play, and there is some fine clowning to behold, especially with Carly J. Bales and Molly Margulies throwing themselves around as wasted buffoons. Jonathan Jacobs also leans hard on the comedy, largely rejecting the straight romanticism of Ferdinand, which works. June Keating’s Caliban is almost too sympathetic (I missed the darker implications the character usually brings, the danger, the id) but she’s sweet and it’s a choice. Betse Lyons brings some shady business to the traitorous Antonio and Mika J. Nakano some appropriate weirdness and cool, jerky, rhythmic movement (choreography by Caitlin Bouxsein) to the sprite Ariel, which is a hard one to nail. I also really enjoyed Michael Ziccardi’s directness as the honest and good old courtier Gonzalo.
BOTTOM LINE: Annex never, ever disappoints, and The Tempest is no exception to that rule. If the production prioritizes style over substance a bit, I doubt anyone’ll really care, not when when the style is this exceptional. As a longtime Annex fan, however, I would challenge the company to do something unexpected and scale all the way back, but don’t you go changing for me, boo. Strong performances that resist getting swept away carry the day and it’s definitely something to see, if you can (tickets are getting super limited).
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