Barto Productions

at Body Politic Theatre

How do you stage a shipwreck? As Michael Barto illustrates in his production of The Tempest, you don’t. You suggest it. Barto does away with any literal elements in the play’s opening scene, in which the King of Naples and members of his court are racked by a storm conjured by the magician Prospero. Instead Prospero (Michael A. Garcia)–who does not play a part in Shakespeare’s text–stands center stage while all around him terrified voices call out from the darkness as the ship breaks apart. Other actors beat on large pieces of rust-colored sheet metal hanging from the ceiling to imitate the sound of thunder.

All this abstraction evokes a shipwreck that is frighteningly real to the imagination. But more important, the scene focuses on Prospero’s relationship to the calamity he has created. Prospero alone is lit, and we see his delight as he brings his enemies, those who conspired to overthrow his dukedom and banished him to an island, to their knees. But he also seems troubled by his action, as if dimly aware of the great lesson in forgiveness he will learn by the end of the play.

The scene encapsulates this production’s major theme: the importance of forgiveness. At the same time it points out that the simplest gestures can often create an entire world, and especially when that world is nearly impossible to stage literally. And since The Tempest is centrally concerned with the nature of illusion and reality, calling upon the audience’s imaginations seems entirely appropriate.

Strangely, though, this approach all but disappears after the first scene. Once the action on Prospero’s island begins, Barto fills in all the blanks, leaving the audience little to do. Caliban (Kevin Theis), the monstrous offspring of a witch, wears an elaborate mask and makeup and a deformed unitard festooned with scraggly hairs, boils, and other unpleasant excrescences. Ariel (Ajay K. Naidu) wears a delicately mottled body suit with elaborately constructed wings. When the members of the court wash up onshore, they are beautifully costumed in layers of off-white.

Faye Fisher-Ward’s handsome costumes are impressively constructed, but they leave no room for the imagination. A character like Caliban does not resonate with much metaphorical significance because he’s so literally realized. And while Theis’s performance gives the monster a touching humanity, the character can’t expand beyond the specific look it’s been given. The design rarely recedes enough to let the larger issues of the play come forth.

The design also divides the play into three distinct worlds: the island world of Prospero, daughter Miranda (Sara Nichols), and Caliban is colored in dark earth tones; the royal court is draped in spotless whites and creams; and the spirit world is wrapped in shades of blue. This design evokes qualities that seem appropriate, but there’s no sensibility that links all three. As a result the production seems three different plays.

The varying acting styles in this Tempest exacerbate the lack of unity. Scenes are generally either full of exaggerated emotions or curiously passionless. Prospero’s fury, Miranda’s pleadings, and Caliban’s contempt often grow to nearly grotesque enormity, while members of the court seem to carry on purely intellectual discussions. This may have been the director’s conscious choice, to point up the differences between the veneer of culture and the grittiness of nature, but such a choice prevents a consistent stage reality from emerging. Scenes focusing on the members of the court are especially problematic. When we first see them, they’ve washed up on the beach, and the King of Naples (Page Hearn) believes his son to have been drowned. Gonzalo (Dan Howell) tries to lift the king’s spirits by expounding upon their good fortune: they’ve survived and ended up on a hospitable island. But the scene is played as a simple debate. And since the characters seem entirely composed, the reality of the shipwreck and the seriousness of their situation are compromised–the scene loses the stakes that make it dramatically compelling.

Curiously, Gonzalo is played as a bit of a goofy, dithering old man who doesn’t have much commitment to the words of comfort he offers his king. Meanwhile Prospero repeatedly describes him as a man of enormous generosity and compassion. In fact, it is only when Prospero realizes how he has made Gonzalo suffer that he sees the damage his vengeance can do. But since Gonzalo is such a cardboard character here, Prospero’s emotional turnabout carries little weight, undercutting the message about his need to forgive.

Perhaps the most successful scenes are those with Stephano (Ted Koch), the king’s drunken butler, and Trinculo (Maggie Carney), the court jester. These two play Shakespeare’s humor to the hilt, Koch as an operatic bungler with a cheesy Italian accent and Carney as a firecracker mimic like Robin Williams’s genie in the film Aladdin. Their performances open up Shakespeare’s dense text and demonstrate its continuing vitality. Unfortunately these two characters stand completely apart from the rest of the production, not only because their cartoonish acting is unlike anything else in the play but because they’re dressed in almost contemporary style. They provide terrific comic relief but do little to serve the play’s larger intentions.