At the Loeb Nov. 12-18
Tim Mayer and his company have taken The Tempest by storm. Designers Eric Martin and William Carter have built a magic island on the Loeb main stage. Paul Levi has filled it with delicate music, which, thanks to a specially installed sound system, is not just a noise off stage, but seems to fill the air. And Mayer, as director, has peopled the enchanted commonwealth with mankind. Plus two. The show should sell out by sundown.
Think of The Tempest not as a statement but as a meditation and you don't ask for a definitive production. There are too many themes woven together in the plot and in the verse for a single rendition of the play to display them all. Some are obscure, at least to an audience not familiar with the traditions of the revenge tragedy and the pastoral romance--both of which The Tempest in some degree comprehends.
A glance at the footnotes in any critical edition will show you that almost every character in the play recalls a dozen others. Prospero, you learn, springs from a long line of irascible magicians. And Ferdinand, it appears, could have stepped out of Sidney's Arcadia. But even if you have dutifully read the appropriate criticism, unraveled the separate strands of Renaissance thought, gotten up the puns, you still won't resonate to everything in the play--or at least, not the first time--simply because you aren't Elizabethan.
Mayer, no doubt, has read the appropriate criticism (and his clowns laugh as if they understand their quibbles). But, perhaps in an effort to give the play more life, or to make it more intelligible, he has adopted a slightly oversimplified interpretation.
In short, the magic gets the most of him. He makes Prospero's decision to forgive his enemies a sudden change of heart, motivated by Ariel's pity for the distracted lords. But Prospero's mercy was part of his plan from the beginning. He could have had vengeance simply by letting Antonio and Sebastian kill Alonso, and then, with some supernatural urging, kill each other. Ariel might even have saved Gonzalo.
With the decision to spare the three lords, Prospero seems to step quite abruptly from the world of magic to the world of men. He does make that step, but it should be prepared for. The relinquishment of supernatural powers is part of Prospero's own reconciliation. He drowns the book that lost him his kingdom (a cousin of the books that lost Faustus his soul) and reassumes his temporal power and role.
This return to normality is something Prospero longs for. The pardon of his enemies is part of it. Vengence is God's. Prospero's rejection of vengeance for virtue is a parallel to his rejection of supernatural power for temporal sway. Neither shift should be happenstance. In Mayer's interpretation both appear so (as Daniel Seltzer played it, Prospero's decision to greet the waking lords in his ducal, not his magician's robes, seemed an incidental thought).
It may be Mayer saw the chance decisions as the work of a supernatural providence. Ariel is present at both scenes; he inspires Prospero's mercy and, as Mayer staged it, he fixes the old crown of Milan on Prospero's head.
But this interpretation too distorts the play. The Tempest is full of commentary on the theme of art vs. nature. Caliban and Miranda are contrasts in the effects of nature on creatures of different nature. Caliban and Antonio are contrasted in their lesser and greater capacity for corruption by civilization--owing to their lesser and greater natural gifts.
The list is long. But the crown of this particular meditation is the picture of Prospero working out his return to his normal station by supernatural means, the idea of art as a means of grace. Prospero's salvation comes though works as well as fortune--the fortune that thrusts him from his study as well as the fortune that brings his enemies to his shore. To characterize Prospero, like Leontes, as the servant of his random thoughts, is to seriously mistake him.
Mayer's interpretation of Prospero's decisions to forgive his enemies and to change his magic for his ducal staff is particularly surprising in view of the care with which he has Prospero plan the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. Seltzer's hidden joy--"It works"--and pretended severity as the couple provide some of the nicest touches in his characterization of the wise old mage. It is hard to believe Prospero could be so happily engineering a dynastic marriage, while plotting the permanent destruction of the head of the opposite house.
But enough. The cast was the best I've seen in a play at Harvard, and all deserve credit.
Within the interpretation Mayer provided for him, Seltzer created an utterly engaging Prospero. His anger, his twinkle, his thunder, his weariness, all were part of the same man--a man I've never met anywhere, but one I'd like to know.
Peter Weil's Caliban was less lusty than I'd have made him, but that's Mayer's doing. Weil makes an intriguing connection between this and spiritual impotence. Particularly in his "'Ban, 'Ban, Ca-caliban" song when Caliban stretches his lungs and brain to their breaking point and makes nothing but noise, he expresses the limits of his subhuman character.
Dan Deitch's Ariel is weird: a sprite to be reckoned with. The singularity of his speech and movement gave the production an added dimension.
Lisa Kelley, who played Miranda, appears to be the twin of Lynn Milgrim, only a little less petulant. She was perfect. John Ross played Ferdinand with almost equal grace, mixing it, correctly I think, with the unsteadiness of a very young man who thinks he has just become king.
Thomas Babe and Dean Stolber, as Trinculo and Stephano, created their own little boozy world in their scenes with Caliban. In a lesser production they'd be the reason for buying tickets.
Robert Egan's Alonso was properly measured and sad. Darryl Palmer, as Gonzalo, struck the perfect balance between sanctity and senility. If he's under thirty, his characterization was a masterpiece.
Arthur Friedman, as Antonio, and especially Stephen Michaels, as Sebastian, were exactly the cynical, second--rate characters Shakespeare drew. Their humor was more than irreverent, it was self-defeating, the perfect mark of petty men. And if they left their spiritual states ambiguous at the play's end, so did Shakespeare.