American Players Theatre

Spring Green, Wisconsin

“Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself.” –Walt Whitman

Let me get something off my chest first. I was a guest on a TV show the other day–one of those four-chairs-and-a-moderator setups they run at around sunrise on weekend mornings to fulfill FCC public-service requirements. The subject was the controversy over Miss Saigon, the British supermusical that transplants the Madame Butterfly story to wartime Vietnam. Briefly, Asian American actors were angry to learn that the show would be coming to Broadway with its London star, a white man named Jonathan Pryce, playing the important role of the Engineer–who’s supposed to be Eurasian. The board of Actors Equity chose to be angry, too, voting to bar Pryce from reprising his role in the United States.

Miss Saigon producer Cameron Mackintosh got angry in his turn, saying, No Pryce, no musical. Which meant No $25 million advance ticket sales, no long-term employment for 50-odd Equity members, no major boon for the New York tourist trade, and no profitable road shows. Under heavy pressure from membership, the Equity board rescinded its original vote.

The anger wasn’t rescinded, however, and neither were the ethical issues involved. The TV show was supposed to give a quick 20 minutes to those issues.

Two guests represented the anti-Mackintosh point of view, a third played Polonius, and I felt called upon to rebut the first two any way I could. This led me into trouble, because the conversation turned to the question of using makeup to change an actor’s ethnic appearance. One of the anti-Mackintosh guests, an Asian American, said that the idea of white actors using tape to get a “slanty-eyed” effect was deeply offensive to Asian Americans. I replied that I’d just come from the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where I’d seen an Asian American actor named Randall Duk Kim use heavy makeup to give himself a Caucasian look for the role of Prospero in Shakespeare’s fantasy The Tempest. I said I didn’t think this compromised his performance.

This was a really stupid thing to say. Never mind that it was a non sequitur, or that there’s something inherently idiotic about arguing with people over what they do and don’t find offensive. Never mind that putting on slanty eyes and playing Asian is, as the Asian American guest remarked, no different from putting on blackface and playing Negro. What gets me about this statement of mine is that I don’t even agree with it. I just said it to be combative. Ask me any other day of the week and I’ll tell you that the narrow literalism involved in making up Asian is just as repugnant to me as the narrow literalism involved in saying that people of one race shouldn’t be allowed to portray people of another. The theater is imaginative space, where the audience conspires to Believe Anything. Under circumstances like that, using makeup to assume some kind of ethnic disguise seems superfluous at best.

And that specific bit about Randall Duk Kim’s performance not being compromised? Another abject lie. It would have been much more accurate to say his performance isn’t ultimately compromised by his makeup job: Kim’s acting here is so generous, so affable, so incredibly well-grounded that it finally seeps through the marionette’s-head mask of latex and grease in which he all but smothers himself.

The truth is I’ve been making the 200-mile trip to the outdoor classical theater at Spring Green, off and on, for seven summers now, and I’ve never been comfortable with Kim’s penchant for elaborate disguises. Sometimes I think he sees disguise as a form of self-abnegation–an Asian purist’s attempt to protect the Western canon from his own foreignness. Sometimes I think he just sees it as a fun thing to do. Either way, it always backfires, drawing ostentatious attention to itself for no good dramatic reason.

There’s a certain charm to the disguise this time around–partly because Kim’s beard and bald-pate wig make him look like Leonardo da Vinci, with whom an august wizard like Prospero would have a natural affinity; and partly because The Tempest plays so easily with illusion and identity, masks and masques. What’s a little makeup when the stage is already full of conjured fairies and spirits and beasts? When the air’s already full of disembodied voices?

But in the end, Kim’s own vivid humanity–and the scrupulously specific emotional reality in which he and codirector John Wyatt immerse the whole production–constitute an overwhelming disproof of the notion that you’ve got to look Shakespearean to play Shakespeare. There was a moment during the performance I saw when Thomas Lynch, who plays the sack-obsessed drunkard, Stephano, made a largish gesture that caused a drop or two of liquid to go flying out of his bark-skin bottle; Lynch noticed the loss and gave a sweet, pained, hilarious little grimace that spoke on and on about who precisely–absolutely precisely–Stephano is. Such concentration, such focus, such perfect centering in the character and the moment doesn’t need makeup.

And Kim exhibits just the same virtues. His shipwrecked wizard is a casual masterpiece: so easy in its sense of–what can I call it?–personhood; so comfortable in its ability to discover and disclose the concrete, situational meaning of Shakespeare’s words. Now if only his skin didn’t look like a textured vinyl handbag.

Not that makeup is always a bad idea. It can be a marvelous thing when it’s used to goose rather than repress the imagination. Look at Stephen Hemming’s mutation into Caliban, the “mooncalf” whom Prospero enslaved after he nearly raped Prospero’s daughter: a cross between Edwin Booth and a fish, he nevertheless projects a strong internal life. Hemming allows Caliban his pain–and his glimpse of transcendence as well.

Then there’s Steven A. Helmeke as Prospero’s attendant sprite, Ariel. With his glittery outfits, his big hair, his breathy voice, and his fey, dancey moves, Helmeke comes on at first like Vanna White doing her best Marilyn Monroe. But further along, as he undergoes several transformations that cross back and forth over sexual lines–and as his affectionate relationship with Prospero becomes more evident–it’s possible to imagine him, not merely as a familiar, but as a familiar: as Prospero’s airy mistress. I found myself picturing a pretty fabulous sex life for them over the years, with Ariel changing form at will. Talk about goosing the imagination. This ingenious twist, this vision of Prospero and Ariel as lovers, gives a whole new quality of melancholy to their parting. It also suggests why Kim’s Prospero is always in such a good mood.

For information on the Spring Green area, see the Visitors’ Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Zane Williams.