A Square, Peopled with Calibans

In its 17th season, the Tennessee Stage Co. continues with Shakespeare's greatest hits


by Kevin Crowe

Prospero surveys the sea, lifting his magic staff high into the air to conjure his dark arts. All lost! scream the mariners, who are trudging through the audience, working their way toward the stage. To prayers, to prayers! All lost! Exiting at random, the cast disappears behind the stage. A primal drumbeat keeps on, slowly losing its intensity. The blue drapes hanging from the scaffold blow in the wind. Folks wander around, hither and thither. Life on Market Square is business as usual. The screams of children echo from the fountains.

â“Who's playing tonight?â” a man asks, as he plops down on a bench. Then Prospero comes to center stage, joined by his daughter, Miranda. She begins: If by your art, my dearest father, you have/ Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them. It has begun, in the middle of the Square, which is teeming with life, most of it unconcerned with the Bard. Behind the stage, a group of zombies slowly wander down Wall Avenue, heading out of sight. Their show goes on, a kind of performance art that only briefly comes into contact with tonight's performance. It all seems terribly normal.

There's a bold simplicity during the opening minutes of The Tempest , a calculated minimalism that's designed to let Shakespeare's words breathe, to be shouted into the crowds, freed of years of academic scrutiny. In 1603, satirist Henry Cross wrote that the average playgoers were â“the leaudest persons in the land, the very scum, rascallitie, and baggage of the people, thieves, cutpurses, shifters; briefly an uncleane generation, and spaune of vipers.â” His words still ring true, in a sense. The bars are packed. Outdoor patios are filled with people, their voices coming together in an indecipherable sonic miasma. And spiked on top of it all are the voices of actors, playing roles that have stood the test of time, roles that speak to the common man. These are people, nothing more, beautiful creatures in spite of their faults.

The Tempest is a play about the simplest human emotions; it's about betrayal, anger, love and, ultimately, forgiveness. These are the themes that haunted Shakespeare during his final days as a playwright. Forgiveness, for the Bard, was never an easy concept to wrap his mind around. But in the end, it took on a profound meaning. The character of Prospero allowed Shakespeare to succumb to intense introspection, praying for a mind that's quiet in spite of the despoiled world around him.

In the 17th season of Shakespeare on the Square, the founding director of the Tennessee Stage Company, Tom Parkhill, is surprisingly absent from the cast, although you can still see him wandering about the crowd before each performance, handing out playbills and gabbing it up with his fellow buddies of the Bard.

There are no decorations to speak of on the stage, just the actors, standing in front of an audience. There are no significant props to save them. Successfully reinterpreting Elizabethan themes is never an easy task. Terry Weber's Prospero is a staid philosopher, awash in romantic ruin. Weber balances the duality of Prospero eloquently. He is at once a man bent on revenge against the usurpers of his dukedom, yet he's also a sage student of the human condition, a contrite and empathetic character who's looking to find a sense of peace.

R.C. Croy's depiction of Caliban, a savage monster who's forced into servitude by Prospero, gives us a surprisingly endearing character. He's perched on stilts, galumphing about the stage, enslaved by a mind that's vexed with hatred toward his master. Yet there's a childlike simplicity that's driving him, especially after he meets Trinculo and Stephano, two drunken castaways. With their brains blitzed by wine, they lose themselves in a comedy of errors, a sort of carnivalesque series of events, fueled by misguided rage.

And behind it all is Shinnerrie Jackson, who plays the part of Ariel. She's triumphantly translucent as she sneaks into the background, her angelic singsong voice calling out to the lost mariners, like a siren. Her presence is an intricate balance of featherweight touch and electric movement. When she enters the scene, she's forced to deal with one of Shakespeare's most famously absurd stage directions: Enter Ariel, invisible . She has just enough speed to stay away from the drama directly, but her actions are never understated when her airy forces guide the play toward a meditative tableau, bending the mariners just enough to obey her will. Prospero watches it unfold, away from the action until the very end.

The magician ends the play with an epilogue, a curt summation of Shakespeare's state of mind: Now I want/ Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,/ And my ending is despair,/ Unless I be relieved by prayer,/ Which pierces so that it assaults/ Mercy itself, and frees all faults./ As you from crimes would pardoned be,/ Let your indulgences set me free. The play, in a sense, works as a prayer, as the Bard continues to ask for forgiveness even now, hundreds of years after his death.

We're all in the same boat. Even the monstrous Caliban, who embodies the most base and primitive parts of humanity, finds serenity. Ariel, too, is set free, as Prospero's magic ceases to hold nature under its control. It's a prayer, a romance of the mind. Here, on the Square, surrounded by all our distractions. m


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