What I learned. . .

The Tempest was another of Shakespeare’s plays that I’d done my best to avoid.  Perhaps it’s because, as with The Merry Wives of Windsor, I’d rarely seen a production that seemed to succeed; perhaps I thought it was altogether an impossible play to make work. Although I don’t think I got all of the pieces comprising this magical, baffling play right, having to dive into the work headlong and immerse myself in the attempt to get it right taught me much – and having succeeded on as many fronts as I think I did, I can honestly say I look forward to the next time I have the opportunity to direct the play.

The Tempest is probably Shakespeare’s last play, and falls into the category of his romances, which also includes Pericles, Cymebline, and The Winter’s Tale.  I realized early on that I myself wasn’t entirely clear about what specific elements comprised a romance (though I’ve directed Cymbeline and seen a number of productions of The Winter’s Tale) so learning more about the form and its actual expectations seemed essential to building a viable production.  What resonated with me most, I think, was the need for the Masque – in the case of The Tempest this meant that the supernatural spirits, the banquet, the Harpy, the pursuing dogs, and the goddesses all had a natural and expected place in the production.  Rather than cutting or avoiding those challenges, I decided to take them on, and was fortunate to get to work with a group of very talented young designers who were as eager as I was to figure out how to make those elements vivid, fun, and an integral part of the production. 

Further, I learned that Shakespeare had been criticized by his peers for being unable to write a play that adhered to the unities of time and place, and it is theorized that part of what he wanted to accomplish in The Tempest was to silence those critics for once and for all and therefore, made certain that the play took place in one day’s time, and all in the same locale.  It was, in a way, Shakespeare thumbing his nose at his detractors.

I also found out that there is an actual island off the northern coast of Sicily that exactly matches the description of Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s text and that would have been directly on the course on which Antonio, Ferdinand, Gonzalo, and the other nobles would have set sail as they traveled from northern Italy to Naples and to Tunis – and that according to at least one scholar, it was quite possible Shakespeare might have visited that island (though most believe that Shakespeare never set foot outside of England).

Armed with this information and after several readings of the text (and an in-depth viewing of Des McAnuf’s excellent production of the play at the Stratford, Canada, Shakespeare Festival featuring Christopher Plummer as Prospero), I dove into the design process with the students that Dottie Marshall Englis had assigned to the production, each of whom was creative, inventive, imaginative, and fun.  We had a blast.

Dottie and the acting faculty at Webster, always concerned about providing enough opportunities for women in Conservatory productions, asked me to seriously consider as much cross-gender casting as possible.  The result was that I cast female actors as Prospero, Antonio, Trinculo, and Ariel (the latter being  not uncommon in many productions).  I asked the actors to simply “go for the human being” and to not worry about gender – to worry about action, intention, pursuit of objective, obstacle, and playing to win instead of trying to “man up.”  It’s my belief that the rest will follow, if you simply start with the basics, and that after a brief period of adjustment, we simply accept the idea that this is a woman playing Propspero – or Antonio or Trinculo or Ariel, and enough said.  The theatre, after all, is the meeting place for the imagination and the willing suspension of disbelief.  I thought all four women acquitted themselves well and turned in very credible work.

Ariel and Caliban are something of the polar opposites yet twin spirits under Propsero’s command on his island, and the only two characters in the play who are referred to as “slaves.”  It was chancy, therefore, to consider African-American actors for the roles, but it turned out that the two students I felt best suited for the parts were both actors of color.  Bruce Longworth, who heads Webster’s acting program, and I talked to the African-American Conservatory students after general auditions and as callbacks got underway, and told them that we would certainly understand if they wished to not be considered for the parts.  To a person they all said, “No!  These are good roles and we want the chance to play them” – which they did, wonderfully well.

One of the most vexing aspects of The Tempest is not Prospero and his relationship with Miranda – or Miranda’s with Ferdinand – or Caliban or Ariel or even the more supernatural, Masque-like elements.  It’s those pesky Nobles who wash ashore and wander in and out of the action.  Hard to tell them apart; hard to make clear their story and their function in the play.  It’s the part of any production of The Tempest I’ve seen that has confused, baffled, and/or bored me.  So in many respects, that was the part of the play that scared me the most.  But as with anything in Shakespeare that frightens me (the “English scene” in Macbeth, for instance), I simply summon my courage, dig into the text, try to avoid choices that obfuscate my ignorance or lack of specificity and let me off the hook, and just do my best to figure out what the scene is about, from where the conflict within the scene and the characters arises, what objectives each person on stage is pursuing, and what gets accomplished by scene’s end – how the story gets moved forward.  I’d say that I made a good first attempt at understanding and conquering this element of the play, and will apply everything I learned to the next opportunity I get to spend time with these characters.

In so many ways, this first outing was the ideal way for me to begin my directorial acquaintance with this challenging, formidable, and beautiful script.  I was blessed with enough rehearsal time, eager and talented young designers, and an equally eager and talented cast that was ready to trust and to dig in and explore the play.  I could not have asked for better support all the way around, and I just hope I’m lucky enough to have as strong a foundation the next time I’m entrusted with this magical and moving play.

The Tempest

Webster Conservatory of Theatre Arts

November, 2015

Bernell Lassai

“Paul Mason Barnes’ direction displayed the insight we’ve come to expect of him in Shakespeare at the Rep.”

     Bob Wilcox, Gerry Kowarksy

     Two on the Aisle

The Tempest, that rich bittersweet fantasy, sits like a dessert atop the great feast of Shakespeare.  This, the bard’s final play, was given a splendid production by the Webster Conservatory under the direction of Paul Mason Barnes.

“Scenic designer Chris Ringeisen gives us a sumptuously exotic magical island – clothed in vines and mosses.  In the far distance stand ragged volcanic crags silhouetted against a turbulent ever-changing sky (devised by Lighting Designer Matt Rogers).  As soon as the house darkens we’re swallowed by the most powerful, sky-shattering Tempest one could ever imagine!  The earth shakes with thunder, the ship pitches and sways violently.  The ship’s rigging in the fore-part of the stage is filled with frantically scrambling seamen and panicked nobles as they desperately battle to save (or escape) their doomed vessel.  Then, with a great foundering crash all the ship’s rigging comes tumbling down catastrophically.  It’s thrilling!  What a scene!  And the play continues from strength to strength.

“Exposition in Shakespeare is sometimes a little klunky, but director Barnes makes it not only clear but charming.  As Prospero explains their history to Miranda other actors perform a dumb-show illustrating the usurpation by Antonio and Gonzalo’s help when Prospero and the infant Miranda are consigned to the sea.  This gracefully introduces us to all the noble characters—and it’s all accompanied by beautifully evocative cello music.

“All of the student cast do excellent work.  As is common in university Shakespeare a few actresses take on men’s roles: one of the treacherous nobles (Antonio) is played with sleek villainy by Lara Dohner, and Annie Barbour gives a delightful bright lean agility to the comic clown, Trinculo.  She and the bumptiously drunken Stephano (well played by Matthew Luyber) make a fine funny team.  Prospero, too, is played by a woman – Madeline Lauzon.  She gives a strong, intelligent performance, her lovely voice clear as a bell.

“Amanda Swearingen and Ryan Alexander Jacobs give us a quite beautiful Miranda and Ferdinand – a gently, touching, respectful love.  And Miranda’s sheer amazement at this ‘brave new world’ is a delight.

“Cassia Thompson is grace incarnate as Ariel.  She’s wondrously fleet and agile.  And when she appears as a harpy – with frighteningly animate articulated wings – she seems a fierce force to be reckoned with.  Always when she flies away, she does so with a wisp of gently shimmering bells.

“And Caliban!  Talk about fierce!  Bernell Lassai pounces upon this role with huge animal strength.  In a wonderful hideous monstrous costume—with his hump-back encrusted with barnacles—he makes Caliban at once frightening and pathetic.  Constantly scuttling about on all fours, he’s as quick and graceful as a crab.

“There is a delicious soundscape on this island.  The isle is full of spirits—earthy, innocent spirits – who watch like curious birds the carryings on of these humans.  Ever and anon they sing, they coo and hum, they pound out rhythms.  Sometimes this sound rises into song – like an utterly beautiful madrigal.  This is indeed a magic island!

“Costumer Abby Dorning dresses the nobles in the Directorire style.  It’s a very handsome period – and perhaps the last where the carrying of swords is appropriate.  Her islanders are fantasy itself–and beautiful to see.

“So it’s another beautiful Shakespeare by the Webster Conservatory.  A tale told clear as a bell.”

     Steve Callahan