There are two Prosperos in Shakespeare’s marvelous fantasy The Tempest. One creates wonders, producing masques out of empty air and commanding spirits who fly through endless transformations and sing impossibly sweet songs. That’s the wise Prospero. The kindly, profound, almost omniscient Prospero. Prospero the Italian bodhisattva, who unites lovers, forgives enemies, frees debtors, accepts death, and orchestrates sublime ceremonies of reconciliation.
The other Prospero’s plain mean. He may unite lovers — but he makes them suffer slavery first, as a test of their love. He may forgive enemies and free debtors — but not before he’s dragged them through swamps, driven them mad with visions, or wrung them dry in his service. He may accept death — but only on the condition that the dukedom he lost through negligence be restored to him. He may reconcile — but he doesn’t necessarily forget. This is the hard Prospero: arrogant, possessive, bitter, and cunning. Oppressive in his dealings with Caliban and Ariel, the “mooncalf” and spirit he found on the island he now presumes to rule. This Prospero obsesses over his daughter’s virginity and instigates rebellion for the purpose of putting it down. Like J. Edgar Hoover or Richard Nixon, he’s the kind of paranoid clever enough to engineer justifications for his paranoia.
Directors of The Tempest usually ignore Prospero #2. They try to bury him under the comedy, the romance and magic that are already so plentiful in the script. Like the drowned man in Ariel’s famous song, they turn his bones to coral and his eyes to pearls. And they call the lovely but incomplete result “Prospero.” Losing not just a bit of rough texture, but an essence. It’s as if somebody went through the Old Testament and cut out the passages where God gets mad.
The new Goodman Theatre Tempest restores what’s missing. As conceived by director Robert Falls and acted — fascinatingly — by Denis Arndt, Shakespeare’s shipwrecked wizard is a master of spirits and spells . . . but a slave to his crabbed, angry, egotistic impulses.
Arndt’s very tough, very contemporary performance goes a long way toward communicating those impulses. But most of the message comes through context — through the people and things with which Falls surrounds his Prospero. Like Bruce A. Young’s unexpectedly sympathetic Caliban. Played without the usual reptilian accoutrements as a not entirely repellent creature whose grievances contain a certain amount of substance and whose follies express a certain amount of pain, Young’s Caliban seriously challenges the convention of Prospero’s benevolence.
There’s a sort of visionary common sense about the way Falls builds his context — about his way of taking the most mundane propositions and turning them into pivotal images. Picking up, for instance, on the obvious but somehow neglected fact that Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, has known Caliban all her life, Falls lets her offer the beast a comforting, familiar, innocently affectionate cuddle. And so subverts our impression of everyone involved. Suddenly Caliban’s a member of the family. Suddenly Prospero’s account of Caliban’s past crimes seems less authoritative, his retribution not quite so divine. Similarly, Falls brings out the many suppressed affinities between Caliban and Ariel — first, by casting black men in both roles; second, and very powerfully, by allowing Ariel to listen with evident respect when Caliban offers his yearningly poetic third-act complaint. Again, the implications for Prospero in all this aren’t terribly flattering.
The entire production echoes Prospero’s double nature. Just as the old magician’s vindictive self undermines his bodhisattva aspect, Falls’s aggressive alienation effects undermine the wonders he purveys. Don Franklin’s exquisite Ariel flies, but we see the wires. Absurd versions of Kabuki koken move props wearing nylons over their heads. John Boesche’s mysterious slide projections are beamed onto the exposed back wall of Adrianne Lobel’s set. And so on and on. Every marvel arrives in the company of its contradiction.
Ultimately, of course, that’s the point. This Tempest isn’t about Prospero’s schizoid nature. As far as I can see it’s a meditation on, an attempt to embody, the essential paradox of creativity: the tension between the miracle and its mechanism. Between the wizard and the man behind the curtain. Basically, it’s about transcendence — the possibility thereof. And the politics.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. I know this must sound strange, coming after eight paragraphs of enthusiastic analysis. But it’s true. The production seems to flag whenever it draws away from the dynamic center provided by Arndt’s Prospero. Miranda’s romance goes nowhere. The soon-to-be forgiven enemies are rather dull. And the low comedy falls flat, despite the presence of savvy funnymen like Del Close and John Mohrlein. Despite Falls’s ambitious, fitfully brilliant effort to open things out, the wonder, the nimbus of his Tempest remains around Prospero, Ariel, Caliban.
Which is hardly a reason to avoid it. There’s more vigor, more creativity, more intellectual and visual passion here than in a hundred smoother productions. Robert Falls is ferociously inventive and undoubtedly one of the best things that’s happened to Chicago theater. Certainly, to the Goodman.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.