Presented by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company at the Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theater, Chicago, Illinois, March 26--May 31, 2009. Directed by Tina Landau. Sets by Takeshi Kata. Costumes by James Schuette. Lighting by Jane Cox. Sound Design by Josh Schmidt. With Alana Arenas (Miranda), K. Todd Freeman (Caliban), Frank Galati (Prospero), Stephen Louis Gnash (Ferdinand), Jon Michael Hill (Ariel), Tim Hopper (Trinculo), James Vincent Meredith (Antonio), Yasen Peyankov (Stephano), Lois Smith (Gonzalo), Craig Spidle (Alonso), Alan Wilder (Sebastian), and others.
Presented by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Courtyard Theater at Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois, March 29-June 7, 2009. Directed by Josie Rourke. Design by Lucy Osborne. Lighting by Robert Wierzel. Sound Design by James Savage. With Karen Aldridge (Olivia), Michelle Beck (Viola), Scott Jaeck (Sir Toby Belch), Ora Jones (Maria), Dan Kenney (Andrew Aguecheek), Ross Lehman (Feste), John Lister (Sea Captain/Priest), Mark Montgomery (Orsino), Edgar Miguel Sanchez (Valentine), Dan Sanders-Joyce (Fabian), Chris Sullivan (Antonio), Peterson Townsend (Sebastian), Larry Yando (Malvolio), and others.
In director Tina Landau's production of The Tempest, Landau toyed with the notion of"rough magic" by setting the Bard's last play within a stark, post-apocalyptic industrial landscape cluttered with steel bars, metal poles, and concrete floors. Prospero's island resembled an abandoned warehouse, or the inside of a city garage, with the main element being a catwalk slicing the stage diagonally, and a curtain on the back wall serving as a projection screen. In line with its minimalist set design, even Prospero's cherished books were confined to the far comer of the stage, constituting little more than a few stacks. Landau removed the island from the now-tired context of Jamestown-style colonial conquest, instead playing up its modernity, and positing its relevance to a supposedly "post-racial" world. In the production, questions of nationhood and territorial invasion benefited from the subtext of the contemporary cityscape, evoking issues of white flight, gentrification, and real-estate segregation. With the Steppenwolf theater being located near wealthy Lincoln Park--a primarily white neighborhood in Chicago, not too far from the still mostly black and impoverished South Side--Landau provocatively invited the audience to connect the play's Elizabethan imagining of a colonial encounter with the segregated racial politics that still pervade modern-day cities.
After complaints in recent years about its lack of diversity, and the fact that it has only a few African-Americans in its ensemble (a 2006 article in the magazine Time Out pointedly asked, "Why is Chicago theater so white?"), the nationally-recognized theater company, best known for launching the careers of the actors John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, and most recently for developing and premiering the 2008 Tony-Award winning play August: Osage County, impressively redressed the situation by adding several more African-American ensemble members in 2007. In total, four African-American actors starred in this production in prominent roles: Alana Arenas as Miranda, Jon Michael Hill as Ariel, K. Todd Freeman as Caliban, and James Vincent Meredith as Antonio. The production's non-traditional casting represented one of its greatest strengths, with Hill in particular lending a particularly winsome teenage-like stubbornness and toughness to Ariel. Hill's Ariel, with his exposed pectorals and gymnast-like muscularity, had such high-testosterone strength as to turn Prospero's reference to him as "nymph of the fairies" into a laugh line for the audience. While the moment may have struck some as prescribing a kind of heteronormative masculinity (Hill's hyper-masculine Ariel took offense at Prospero's description of him as a "nymph"), the exchange was indicative of the productions continued efforts to prescribe agency and power to its enslaved servant characters. Hill's Ariel made it clear that Prospero's control over him was entirely unwelcome, and that he possessed an identity and will independent of his master's. Likewise, Freeman's Caliban treated his new "masters" Trinculo and Stephano more like peers and partners, at one point decidedly leading rather than following them off-stage. Freeman steered mostly clear of physical language that suggested a savage, primitive nature, portraying Caliban as a dignified former prince rather than the exotic figure Trinculo and Stephano envisioned. By performing Ariel and Caliban as fully human rather than, respectively, as a spirit, and as a "thing of darkness," Landau's actors denaturalized and estranged Prospero's power over them. In this production, Prospero's power was the unnatural, inhuman element of the story.
The production's Prospero, incidentally, represented something of an "insider" reference, as he was played by the well-known Chicago theater director Frank Galati. Casting Galati in the role imbued the part with a number of self-reflexive associations, since his role in Chicago theater is substantial and influential. He has directed numerous productions at the Goodman theatre, where he is an associate director, as well as at Steppenwolf, and as a professor at Northwestern University. I mention his offstage persona as a director for two reasons: one, it fit the scenic design's focus on materials native to the stage--exposed rigging, visible lights, raw surfaces--and it fit Galati's approach to the role, which seemed to be that of the dominant and authoritative--but well-meaning--liberal. Galati brought a particular kind of benevolent paternalism to the role, infusing it with a professorial stance that was reemphasized by Miranda (and later Miranda and Ferdinand) sitting at his feet as he appeared to lecture to them. Galati's Prospero operated more out of intellect and reason than magic and fantasy, demonstrating the colonizer's need to provide a logical rationale for his dominance. Dressed in a semi-Victorian, deconstructed overcoat and at first sitting on a chair lacking some upholstery, Galati's Prospero evoked a lord whose power was already slipping away from him at the beginning of the play. Toward the end, Galati's rather gentle Prospero morphed into the liberal patriarch who has been more or less supportive of the needs and causes of racialized "Others" (an idea emphasized by the visual tableau of his "black" daughter sitting next to him), but who now has to step aside entirely and allow those groups to speak for themselves.
Landau's production appeared to belong less to Prospero than to Ariel. With Shakespeare's verses being often reimagined as R&B, pop, and hip hop music, Ariel dominated many of the scenes, as he served as a kind of house deejay, sitting behind a silver Macbook, and bursting into songs, musical theatre-style. Starting with his high-energy entrance into the play, flying through wires over the audience, Ariel constantly re-oriented the audience's eyeline, drawing it toward different parts of the stage. Landau gave the character the illusion of flight by having him appear and reappear in different sections, from the box seat area to the top of the stage, followed by the equally acrobatic spirits--two men and one woman--who mirrored his movements and flew with him up and down through wires and ropes. Ariel evoked more of a teenage superhero than a fairy creature, partly due to his costume, which consisted on the bottom of futuristic-looking metallic tight-pants. On top, Ariel's torso remained bare throughout the play, emphasizing the materiality of his body, and thus his desire to have a human being's freedom. Ariel's spirits, too, remained shirtless (with the exception of the female spirit) and wore skintight pants, though theirs were held down by black belts that accentuated the genital area like jock-straps and gave their bodies a geometrical quality.
Arenas's performance of Miranda as an empowered young woman marked some of the production's most thought-provoking interventions into the text. From her entrance into the play, running down the concrete catwalk, Arenas emphasized Miranda's strong, independent nature. A few minutes later, when Prospero told her the story of how they had come to arrive in the island, his line "Dost thou attend?" was made to appear contradictory by the choice of having Miranda eagerly and attentively listening to him. In Arenas and Landau's interpretation, rather than suggesting Miranda's child-like, distracted nature, the line highlighted Prospero's own self-absorption, and his desire to demand attention and reassert his authority even when he already had it. Later, during the wedding celebration scene, Shakespeare has Prospero pointedly retort to Miranda's now-famous line, "O brave new world that has such people in it," with the words, "Tis new to thee." On the page, this retort appears to tease Miranda for her own youthful naivete and lack of experience. Galati offered an uninflected reading of the line, neither chiding nor praising Miranda for her observation, allowing Miranda's line to register without Prospero commenting on it or editorializing it.
The productions progressive approach to issues of "race" and gender fit with its rigorously reimagined sense of the island as a place infused by a hybrid, postmodern, deconstructed aesthetic. Scenic designer Takeshi Kata and director Landau's decision to deemphasize the island as island had the effect of diminishing the stakes contained in the desire for geographical control and domination of the colonized territory. With the exposed brick walls and metal potholes on the ground from where toxic-looking green fumes would emerge, the set design made it easy to forget where exactly the shipwrecked characters had washed ashore--Prospero's island, or Chicago's recent manufacturing past. This deliberate ambiguity served to underscore both the theater space and the company's own relationship to its city, whose landscape is still marked by industrial buildings, reconverted warehouses, and unused train tracks. Interestingly, the "riches of the island" were reimagined here as the fruits of the Industrial Revolution--commercial goods that were wheeled in on top of three immense catering-style silver carts containing multi-level trays of pastries, cakes, and other confections. Likewise, when Trinculo and Stephano engaged with the island's resources, as promised by Caliban, the symbols of the spoils of colonization were racks flail of women's clothes, especially fur coats that both characters rushed to place over their bodies. By turning the island into a large, industrialized city, Landau invited the audience to question its own colonial investment in manufactured goods, which are still largely produced by people of color in Third World countries in slave-like conditions, especially women, who stitch and sew clothes they themselves cannot afford. That these products were deceptively attractive--or appetizing, in the case of the cakes--reinforced the colonial project's ability to camouflage itself as a harmless, necessary mechanism, rather than one artificially maintained to protect the economic and political interests of ideological state apparatuses.
Chicago Shakespeare's concurrent production of Twelfth Night, which opened a week after Steppenwolf's production of The Tempest, and ran roughly for the same period of time, shared many of the same scenic and performance imperatives, but with different results. As in the Steppenwolf production, Chicago Shakespeare featured prominent nontraditional casting, a practice that is routine for the company, having included African American actors in their 2007 production of Macbeth (Karen Aldridge as Lady Macbeth), and their 2006 production of Hamlet (Bruce Young as Claudius/Ghost of Hamlet's father). Chicago theatres, incidentally, have been noted since the late 1980s for their nontraditional casting, and one of the early forums for the practice happened at a symposium hosted by the League of Chicago Theatres. But while the aforementioned productions only featured a small number of African-American actors, Chicago Shakespeare's new production of Twelfth Night represented a much more generous and sizeable commitment to nontraditional casting, including Karen Aldridge as Olivia, Michelle Beck as Viola, Ora Jones as Maria, and Peterson Townsend as Sebastian. Aldridge's Olivia highlighted the character's imperious, authoritarian tendencies, making her moments of joy and vulnerability resonate with particular zest. Beck, as Viola, played up the character's tomboy-ish quality, giving Cesario a convincing teenage swagger. As each actor emphasized her character's differences in age, the connection between the two appeared more contemporary in psychology, as Olivia's attraction to Cesario echoed an older woman delighting in a younger man's energy; and Viola's curiosity toward Olivia that of a younger woman drawn to an older woman's power. Aldridge and Beck's commanding performances represented some of the high points of the production. In addition, their scenes together provided the visual pleasure of an unusual tableau: two potentially queer African-American women onstage.
While commendable in its racial politics, the production had less success in its representations of Early Modern masculinities, problematically associating male effeminacy with buffoonery and caricature. Larry Yando's Malvolio drew laughter from his audience for his pomposity and lack of self-awareness, but as he strutted down an imaginary catwalk, the production seemed to veer dangerously close to queer stereotyping. Likewise, Dan Kenney played Sir Andrew Aguecheek as an over the top gay caricature, an interpretation of the role that has become something of a cliche. Even Ross Lehman's Feste played up the clown's effeminacy, at one point sashaying off the stage. The three performances hinted at failed, or undesirable masculinities, existing as foils to the more acceptable, heteronormative examples modeled by Mark L. Montgomery's high-testosterone Orsino, Scott Jaeck's appealing Sir Toby Belch, and even Beck's energetic Cesario. Such old-fashioned and stereotypical performances seemed particularly at odds with the play's potentially progressive relevance to gender performativity, and its implications to queer communities.
Presented at a time of economic downturn, the production's selling point in its advertising and public relations materials was its use of a pool in the main portion of the stage filled with 7,000 gallons of water. Viola literally emerged from the water, and her early scene with the Captain proved particularly effective and resonant. However, as the play continued, the pool turned into more of a hindrance than an asset, as it required characters to interact with the water in an increasingly inorganic fashion. Director Josie Rourke attempted to justify as much as possible the use of the pool, using different characters' relationship to the water to reveal something about them--Sir Andrew did not know how to swim, much as he did not know how to court Olivia; Viola watched from a distance as male members of Orsino's entourage bathed in the water, setting herself apart from them. But Rourke's use of the rectangular, crystal clear pool to suggest the sea was a bit too literal, and at times contradictory. A pool, after all, is not like the sea at all--a pool is controlled and symmetrical, and somewhat at odds with the overflowing emotions of the characters. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult for actors to perform while wading through water; the physical discomfort created by the wetness of the heavy Elizabethan costumes seemed to hinder their ability to find emotional resonance in their characters.
As an intellectual concept, however, the pool seemed like an excellent idea. Surrounded by heart-shaped wooden planks and platforms, the water hinted at a pier, much like the one immediately outside the theater, overlooking Lake Michigan. And since the wood on the stage mirrored the wooden railings and dividers in the mezzanine and balcony sections of the theater, the production succeeded in creating a sense of continuity from the stage, to the audience area, to the pier outside.
SAMUEL PARK, Columbia College Chicago
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|Title Annotation:||Twelfth Night|
|Article Type:||Theater review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2009|
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