‘The Tempest: A Gyre’ experiments with theater

November 4, 2015 by Alex Jen, Staff Writer

The upcoming production of The Tempest: A Gyre, Nov. 12-14, is an innovative combination of theater, dance and percussion. Tim Nagle-McNaughton/Photo Editor.

The upcoming production of The Tempest: A Gyre, Nov. 12 to 14, is an innovative combination of theater, dance and percussion. Tim Nagle-McNaughton/Photo Editor.

“A Gyre” has been added as the subtitle to the theatre department’s upcoming staging of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, running Nov. 12 to 14 in the Adams Memorial Theatre (AMT) at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance. It’s fitting. The production is all vortexed into this: something fantastic, something ominous.

The play is directed by Professor Emeritus of Arts and Theatre Jean-Bernard Bucky. To say he’s a veteran of the theater is putting it lightly – past credits include directing professional productions like the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the San Francisco Opera. This particular Tempest brims with percussion, dance and theater. It’s ambitious, fun and charming; sitting in on the rehearsals, there’s perhaps more work to be done in bringing all the elements together, but it doesn’t seem like a concern.

“Usually, what happens in a theater production is that dance and music become a kind of embellishment. Even when you do Shakespeare, you stop, there’s a pretty little dance, some Renaissance music, and you carry on with the play,” Bucky said. “What I wanted to do was work with Matthew [Gold], who’s the director of the Williams Percussion Ensemble (WiPE), and Erica [Dankmeyer] and Janine [Parker] of the Contemporary Dance Ensemble (CoDa), and conceive of a production organically.”

The show begins with percussion that builds from stage left, unseen. It’s not your typical drum and cymbal set, but it’s not so easily placed either – maybe some metal on metal, or metal on something else. It’s grating, echoing, as the sound and suspense crescendos. It’s a low roar, a quiet hum of persistent, swelling noises that are broken by the sound of glockenspiels and cog rattles, among other assorted instruments. The whole thing surges, it washes over you and catches you unaware.

And to think this was just for rehearsal – come opening night, WiPE will take all four corners of the AMT. The first stage direction in the play reads: “A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard.” There couldn’t be a more apt description.

CoDa adds an interesting element to the part of Ariel (Elias Ramos ’19); that is, the eight dancers are credited along with Ramos as one character. Ariel, found trapped in a tree and freed by the sorcerer Prospero (Jonathan Draxton ’12), is enslaved to him, acting as his agent of all things uncanny. CoDa plays Ariel’s shadow, almost – mirroring but also moving with him. The dancers slither and glide, in sync with the percussion and in beat to the lines. It feels like magic, Prospero’s magic,.

CoDa works when it’s connected with Ramos, but beyond that, there are times when the viewer has a dilemma. When more actors, along with the dancers, are on stage, it feels like the two are competing for visual attention. We spend a little too much time waiting on one group or the other, and the narrative is interrupted for a bit – we don’t know who or what to watch. Both are beautiful, but that’s the issue. Both, separately. Together, there’s no connect.

These observations, however, have been gathered from rehearsals two weeks ahead of opening night. This is a preview, not a review – things no doubt will have changed by Nov. 12.

Looking at what’s part of the set so far, one thing stands out. There’s a protrusion built of wood – a runway, almost – that juts out into the audience, over the second row. Bucky says it’s based on the hanamichi, a long raised platform used in Kabuki theater that allows actors to stop and deliver lines at a point seven-tenths of the way to the stage, the shichisan, where theater is made intimate and the action is in the audience. Bucky calls his variation the “mini-michi.”

Bucky’s decision to include it is a spectacular one at that; the cast uses it to great effect in bringing the play beyond the scripted and practiced. In the plot, Prospero and his daughter Miranda (Evelyn Elgart ’19) have been stranded for 12 years on an island, after Prospero’s usurping sister Antonia (Christine Pash ’18) and Alonso (Benjamin Williams ’17), the King of Naples, rid him of his dukedom and set him and Miranda adrift. Prospero shipwrecks the royal court on its return from the wedding of Alonso’s daughter Claribel, so that he can rightfully regain his title and return to Milan.

Draxton intimidates as Prospero. He shouts threats and commands, and works his magic to snap and send spirits and slaves scurrying. This is Prospero’s island, and we know it. But if Prospero is rough and mean, savage and unwavering, Miranda is the opposite. It’s hard to see how they’re father and daughter. Elgart is gentle, believable in her role – the performance is genuine.

Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes is in the third act, when Ferdinand (William Ouweleen ’19) is tasked to carry firewood for Prospero and Miranda happens upon him laboring away. She begs him to stop, to rest, but Ferdinand will have none of it, preferring to “crack [his] sinews, break [his] back” than have her help with this lowly task. He cares for her, and her for him.

Miranda reveals her name, and immediately regrets it, thinking as if she has completely and utterly betrayed her father. Elgart is innocent, confused, a little lost – but that’s what you’d expect from someone living on an island with a sorcerer and a spirit once stuck in a tree. It works.

It’s unclear whether Elgart is on stage or off. But perhaps that’s the point. She acts such that the line between theater and life is blurred. The mini-michi helps, but it’s her performance that crosses over from the stage in our space. We forget we are in a performance, or rather, a rehearsal, for that matter.

Shakespeare isn’t particularly known for slow, logically paced romantic storylines, but even if the story itself isn’t quite believable, at least Elgart and Ouweleen make it so. Elgart sits on the mini-michi, legs dangling over the edge but looking back longingly at Ouweleen, as if this distance is already too far. Marriage at first sight? Perhaps, perhaps not – nothing seems to make sense on this cursed island.

We’re familiar with this sort of half-in, half-out unsure love – perhaps not in the same sense where we haven’t seen a member of the opposite sex in 12 years, but similar. The desperation of the two is something we might have all experienced. Suit the action to the word, indeed.

For those two, all seems to end well. But we must not forget the others on the island, the spirits, the nonhuman creatures who suffer on the receiving end of Prospero’s wrath. Watching Caliban (Sophia Wilansky ’16), then, is perhaps among the most pleasing moments in the play.

Wilansky has a presence, and a fierce one at that. She makes us feel uncomfortable. The daughter of Sycorax, a deceased sorceress we never meet, she is slave to Prospero and absolutely despises him.

Act two, scene two starts with just Wilansky, carrying a burden of wood and hissing a curse unto Prospero. She drops the tree stump, but her body never leaves it – it’s as if it’s her anchor, the only thing left keeping her sane on this cursed island. We can’t take our eyes off Wilansky; she knots her arms and legs and contorts her body, at one point lying stomach down on the stump. She shudders, whispers to us, and we feel her torment. Prospero’s spirits are driving her crazy, and she can barely get her lines out:

“[S]ometime am I / All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues / Do hiss me into madness.”

Watching her suffer is unsettling. We want to help her, but don’t at the same time, too intimidated and repulsed by her bestial nature. She seethes, makes eye contact. We’re a part of it now. There’s no escaping.

Taken separately, the performances, music and choreography in Tempest prove to be promising – foreboding, a little; riveting, definitely. Taken together, well – we don’t quite know yet. But I’m willing to bet it will be an experience to remember, either way. There’s a storm coming. Head into it.

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