Target Margin’s “The Tempest” at HERE Arts Center
We’ve already previewed it but it’s worth mentioning again, because it’s a surprisingly special piece of theater: this is closing weekend of Target Margin‘s The Tempest at HERE Arts Center (through May 28; tickets $25), and if you have the chance, you should check it out.
I find it a little odd to give an unreserved recommendation to a Shakespeare production. It may be damn near heresy to say it, but I actually don’t usually like seeing Shakespeare performed. There’s theater, after all, and then there’s Shakespeare. The normal qualifiers don’t usually apply. You don’t go see Shakespeare for a well-rounded production. The performances are always uneven. The cutting that goes into paring down the show to digestible length is usually reductive and, in its choices, revealing of the director’s debatable interpretation. It’s not that Shakespeare isn’t good, it’s that it just so rarely offers an unfettered sort of enjoyment. But director David Herskovits and co. offer just that, and that’s why it’s a rare treat.
Whereas most production concepts concern the meaning of the work (let’s set Hamlet in World War II!), Herskovits’s is, fascinatingly, about the production itself. Inspired by the fact that The Tempest was originally written for a chamber setting, Herskovits chose to explore that historicity. It’s not by any means an originalist production, but it borrows heavily from that style. The main theater at HERE is reconfigured for a surprisingly intimate setting; the design is minimalist in its affectation, referencing the staid backdrop of a chamber rather any realistic mise-en-scene. And the acting performances are pre-contemporary, pre-psychological realist.
The result is almost sort of Brechtian. The actors are, in fact, deeply alienated from their characters, and the text is performed as if being read out loud. The result is surprisingly enjoyable–rather than watching actors struggle with varying degrees of success to embody their characters, what we get is the text almost as an object, which allows us to enjoy it for the language. Unlike most other Prosperos I’ve seen, Steven Rattazzi doesn’t rush through his monologues because he’s enraged and consumed by a desire for revenge, but rather languidly indulges the language, letting the words speak for him. It’s not traditional acting, but neither is it deeply deconstructive. Instead, the performance splits the difference, giving us both the poetry of the words as well as the embodiment and performance of real living people, while deftly avoiding the pitfalls you see all too often at even well-regarded theaters.
Herskovits’s intelligent cutting also helps with that. This Tempest is extremely pared down, to under two hours, and it flies by without sacrificing too much. I have to admit, it’s always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, with not only my favorite line (“You taught me language; and my profit on’t, Is, I know how to curse”), but my favorite ending, for how it demands we move beyond anger to forgiveness, which I’ve found deeply moving every time I’ve seen it. (Herskovits doesn’t so much play up Prospero’s transformation, though, which I thought was sad even though it doesn’t hurt the production, per se. I’ve always found the heart of the ending to be in Prospero’s recognition of his own inhumanity when Ariel–the airy spirit who does his bidding–has more sympathy for his fellow-human victims than he does. That always gets me, but Herskovits lets it rush by to get to his finale, which holds its own pleasures.)
The odd thing is, performed this way, some parts of the play that are usually fun start to feel cumbersome. Caliban (Mary Neufeld) is rendered marginal, which works into the production fine, but his little cadre of drunkards–Stephano (Meg MacCrary) and Trinculo (J.H. Smith III)–who usually serve as comic relief, just become a bit cloying in this version, but also impossible to avoid in the story. It’s just that the rest of the cast is so engaging and fun that the comic relief feels over the top. Normally Miranda and Ferdinand’s romance is almost treacly, but Clare Barron and Hubert Point-Du Jour are both downright charming in it, particularly Barron, whose naive character comes to life in both her interactions with Rattazzi’s Prospero and Point-Du Jour.
And then of course there’s Ariel. The tradition of how the character became female is interesting in and of itself, but s/he’s always one of those characters designers love to use, because s/he calls for great bits of stage magic. Herskovits’s chamber production doesn’t disappoint even as it scales them down, and on top of that, Nana Mensah is both beautiful and engaging, diaphanous without sacrificing the character’s edge.