A narcissistic ruler opts to abdicate his position of responsibility in exchange for personal freedom. He assumes that he will retain the privileges and respect afforded his former role. But the family member he has designated to take over betrays him. Instead of enjoying the comfortable life of his choice, he is exiled and undergoes a terrible ordeal. Last year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this premise devolved into the darkest of denouements in King Lear. Now The Tempest, onstage all season in the Bowmer Theatre, revisits a similar misjudgment: Prospero, Duke of Milan, a sort of ivory-tower intellectual, lives so completely in his own mind that he fails to foresee that his brother Antonio, whom he appoints to do his political work, might to get rid of him and put him out to sea to die.
Shakespeare recycles portions of his bleakest tragedy only to reverse them in this pot pourri of his final play, where the betrayal and brutality happen offstage, in the past. Unlike Lear, Prospero has survived these shocks, indeed gone on to prosper in his exile, thanks to his esoteric studies and the unconditional love of Miranda. Instead of succumbing to a storm, his mastery of magic has elevated him to creator of storms, one of which has washed his old enemies into range of his revenge.
Present action, then, finds Prospero conjuring their shipwreck and tracking their travails as they adapt to his island. First to stumble onstage is Ferdinand, Prince of Naples (Daniel Jose Molina), innocent of any political taint. Clearly this young man has been on Prospero’s omniscient radar as a match for his daughter Miranda. Such a marriage would turn Prospero’s descendants into heirs to Naples, after all, one way to get even with Alonso, Ferdinand’s father, who colluded with Antonio in Prospero’s betrayal.
As Miranda and Ferdinand woo, Alonso wanders about with a group of courtiers. Jeffrey King’s know-it-all Antonio and Armando Duran as his sidekick Sebastian find a tension between comic and nasty that energizes their typically difficult segment of the play. Reflecting these conniving nobles like a funhouse mirror are the farcical team of Stephano, the ship’s drunken butler (the inimitable Richard Elmore), Trinculo, the jester (Barzin Akhavan), and Caliban, the island’s original inhabitant, embodied with eerie specificity by Wayne Carr.
One of the many fine points of this OSF production, directed by Tony Taccone, is its acknowledgment of Prospero’s less-than-heroic character—for which there is, after all, ample evidence. As portrayed by Denis Arndt, Prospero’s opening scenes reveal the same detached, self-absorbed, self-righteous man who got himself kicked out of Milan.
Aging and grumpy, Prospero is heavily invested in an ideal image of himself as more sinned against than sinning. He insists on 110% of Miranda’s attention as he narrates his version of their backstory, as if she (the vibrant Alejandra Escalante) were not already riveted to his tale. Prospero dispatches Ariel (the electric Kate Hurster) to take care of the shipwreck victims, then decides the moment calls for a visit to Caliban, deaf to his daughter’s understandable protest—Caliban once attempted to rape her and remains vocal in his wish that he had. It’s no wonder that Miranda cringes at every move he makes. Later, Taccone hints at similarity between Prospero’s studies and Stephano’s alcohol-induced bubble. Whereas in the text, this low-life calls his bottle his “comfort,” Elmore fondly alludes to it several times as his “book.”
In fact the inner life of Arndt’s Prospero remains largely hidden. His episodes of anger are very like the anger he simulates to channel Miranda and Ferdinand’s journey into love. Note: this irate act is geared to ensuring that the lovers won’t take each other lightly; a little emotional awareness would reassure him that nature doesn’t require his help. Later, he’s caught off guard by Ariel’s question, “Do you love me, master?” And the pause before his affirmative answer speaks volumes.
His opacity gives the Japanese Butoh-style dancers, who embody his magical powers, a further purpose—they become clues to Prospero’s dissociated inner states. These ghostly figures whirl around him when he is distraught and tighten ranks at his feet, almost like a pedestal, when he is feeling sure of himself.
As the lovers, Molina and Escalante (formerly known as Romeo and Juliet) are as transparent and intense as Arndt is opaque and cool. Helpless against the force of their attraction, they speak in bursts and take unexpected pauses that make old lines ring with psychological truth. It’s the palpable power of their bond that finally jars Arndt’s Prospero off his predetermined course.
Ariel is singing of fertility and marriage, Miranda and Ferdinand are happily joined, and Prospero cannot stand it. He breaks off the revels with such a roar that Miranda remarks she has never seen him “touched with anger, so distempered.” He claims he has just remembered Caliban’s plot against him. More likely, he is finally feeling something—the loss of her exclusive adoration? A pang over his own isolation compared to the lovers’ intimacy? Some end-of-life regret? “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” he concludes. Lovely lines, resonant with universal meanings. Yet for Prospero at this moment, they may also serve as particular consolation—a reminder of the impermanence of the body and its passions, which he’s never particularly valued or enjoyed.
This eruption also marks a humanizing breakthrough. Prospero’s final interaction with the remorseful Caliban produces a touching moment of reconciliation. The hunkering creature slowly rises to stand upright, and Prospero turns inside out his own ducal cloak before settling it on Caliban’s shoulders. Then, spotlit, Prospero addresses us directly, and the more he claims his frailty, the more we have the dizzy realization that we’ve just witnessed his powerful creation of a brave, new world.
Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com)