Last Thursday I was already worn out by early afternoon, and when I had let my last class go, I listened to Mrs. Churm’s message in disbelief. If I remembered, she said, we had theater tickets, and not in town, but at the University of Illinois’ Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. I hadn’t remembered.
Not getting out much is a vicious circle, and eventually the prospect of having to partake of night life begins to sound—to tired parents who often fall asleep themselves while putting small children to bed at eight o’clock—like more work. Then again, we told ourselves, who didn’t have a long day? Even Starbuck and Wolfie’s babysitter was beat from two midterms and a paper. We would make it.
So Mrs. Churm and I left campus early, got dinner for the boys ahead of time, laid out pajamas on their beds, found some games and a desperation video for the babysitter, and hoped for the best, since we wouldn’t be back until the middle of the night. The drive to the University of Illinois wasn’t exactly relaxing (the place is surrounded by a hundred miles of corn and soybeans), and by the time we got to the arts center, there wasn’t much time for the civilized drink we’d imagined. I had to gulp a fine four-dollar scotch.
As we stood in the lobby, waiting to enter the Tryon Festival Theater, Mrs. Churm asked if I remembered too that the audience would sit onstage—on oil cans, she’d heard—for the two-and-a-half hours of the play, while the players performed among us.
I said it was a rotten trick that she never told me these things ahead of time; she knew I had a bad back from serving our country and just liked to see me suffer. She replied hotly that I thought that just because I was blogger I didn’t have to keep “unimportant things” in my “delicate brain,” such as “what [she] told me three hours ago, and so on.” We got a quickee divorce from a judge standing behind us in line, then were re-married, and when the velvet rope dropped, we marched arm-in-arm down the aisle, as full of hope as little children.
We’ve seen some goofy productions of Shakespeare over the years, ones that tried too hard to be innovative: One of the Richards set in an unidentified but weirdly gorgeous fascist realm, for instance (could Hitler’s costume designer still be alive? I wondered), or Romeo and Juliet set during the American Civil War. (Enter Southern general: “Ah say, O brother Montague, gimme thy hand, Suh. This here is muh daughter’s jointure, for no more kin ah dee-mand.”)
The Tempest, you’ll remember, is a comedy/romance. The deposed Duke of Milan, Prospero, has been marooned with his daughter, Miranda, on an island. Over the last dozen years, Prospero read much—there was no cable access—and became a sorcerer. When his enemies (including the brother who usurped him) sail by, he raises a storm and sinks their ship. The crew sleeps in suspended animation under the sea, while those who plotted against him are washed ashore, where he can deal with them. Eventually all are reconciled, Miranda falls in love with the King of Naples’ son, and everyone is bound for home to live happily ever after.
The first thing we saw as we came down toward the stage, through the hundreds of plush auditorium-style seats we wouldn’t be using, was the white balloon, about eight feet in diameter, tethered to the center of the stage. It glowed intensely from within and was perfectly round, like a moon. It loomed over several dozen short seats that looked like dappled birch logs set on end. The costumed actors walked around and wouldn’t let us sit down “until the bell rang.”
Gregory Thompson, the young director, jumped on a plank bench and said that we, the audience, would serve as Prospero’s island and were islands to ourselves. He’s a smart-looking Brit with a dry sense of humor, and he took his time pointing to various seats (they were indeed rusty 10-gallon cans with cork circles on top), saying, “That’s a good seat. That’s a good one too. Here…is an excellent seat.” Then he asked if there were questions and rang a ship’s bell. The crowd was older but raced to be directly under the balloon.
We sat, closely enough to touch each other, under the artificial moon, with all the ropes and pulleys and stacked chairs and soundboards and lighting computers visible around us in the bay wings. The space was maybe five stories high, and the ceiling way up there was catwalk, with something more above it. The ensemble would use the entire space, including the backstage galleries 20 feet above us, the empty seating in the auditorium, and the balconies; they even left through the theater doors and spoke lines outside. Most of all, they were among us.
It’s a living theater I’ve never experienced before. The lights got cut off just before the play’s start, and the sounds of crashing seas and shouting sailors filled the air. When the moon’s cold glare—the only source of light—came on again, everyone was in oilskins and swayed and teetered and yelled from the plank benches in our midst, while other cast members held long poles, which they picked up at our feet, to simulate the ship’s rails. The boatswain ran through us, pushing and blowing a whistle. It was dizzying. Magically, the scene melted away, and Prospero (David Fielder, the only cast member who’s been with the production from the start) began that marvelous and obvious exposition, which always makes me wonder how Shakespeare gets away with it.
Over the course of the play, the actors jostled old ladies, hid between us, did spit-takes that sprayed over the audience, picked up a child (the son of Krannert Center Director Mike Ross, I believe) and carried him around, and Lord Stephano (the wonderful Peter Kenney) picked up a girl’s coat and wore it like a stole. They used us, picking up a man’s arm to look at his wristwatch when the line was about time’s passage, or rubbing someone’s bald head when the discussion was the “barren patches” on the island. I caught a serious elbow in the back from the feral (yet dignified) Caliban (Jem Wall), and a slap upside the back of my head by Amy Finegan, playing, at the time, the ship’s master. I suspect much of this was on purpose. (If I were one of them and saw a big guy taking Churmish interest, I’d also see how far I could push him to involvement.)
Tom McGovern, as Antonio, Prospero’s usurping brother, spent a lot of time near me. With his high collar and epaulets, and his sharp, haughty face, he looked like a smaller bird of prey, a kestrel hawk. I flatter myself—don’t I always?—that he stayed close because I was so into it, not because he was blocked to be there, and that he was feeding on my energy. At one point, frozen by sorcery, he had to stand for a long period, immobile but emoting. Most of the audience was looking at Prospero instead, so I turned and looked up at him—he was so close I had to look way up, despite his short stature—and a tear rolled down his cheek. It was heartbreaking. (Mr. McGovern could play a very convincing Napoleon, by the way.)
Other than the staging (and the balloon), the most obvious difference in this production was the Ariel decision. Ariel is the airy spirit who serves Prospero by spying on his enemies and pulling tricks. In this production, the single part was played simultaneously by 10 people. They all knew the lines and the Folio punctuation, allowing them to speak singly, in pairs, or in unison without assignment. “Do you love me, Master?” three of them call to Prospero; “Do you love me?” another adds a beat later, then the rest, irregularly, “Love me, Master...Do you love me?...Love me?” They popped up in force with breathy exhalations like a wind gust, and dropped out of sight, disappearing among us. The effect was beautiful and terrifying.
Mr. Thompson said that with only two weeks before performances, he couldn’t find the right person to play Ariel, since she/he/it needed to be “airy,” and so on. He considered casting Amy Finegan, the only American in the cast, in the part, but found his way instead to the idea of a multi-bodied Ariel, which could be everywhere and nowhere at once. (Ms. Finegan is lithe, not airy. She reminds me of Tilda Swinton, to the extent that both can play female characters with a genuine, even chilling, sense of threat.)
One of the most powerful points in the play—not the one I’d expected to react to—is in Act IV. The goddess Iris has called the nymphs “to celebrate a contract of true love.” Iris says:
You sun-burn'd sicklemen, of August weary,
Come hither from the furrow, and be merry:
Make holiday: your rye-straw hats put on,
And these fresh nymphs encounter every one
In country footing.
The stage directions say, “ Enter certain Reapers, properly habited; they join with the Nymphs in a graceful dance….”
The cast was dressed mostly alike in black pants and white shirts. They filed into the island of the audience, making their blowing noise in unison, which now became the sharp exhale of exertion. They were making a big gesture with their arms that I didn’t get at first. It looked like the two-handed karate chop Elvis used to do onstage. As they fanned out and advanced through us, I realized their hands were holding invisible scythes. They were harvesting us, reaping us like stalks of wheat, and I, with recent deaths in my family, wept.
At the end, we were under Prospero’s spell so deeply ourselves that even when we heard the characteristic Shakespearian wrap-up that pleaded for the audience’s favor, we just sat there. (Most people in the room probably knew the play better than I do.) We sat watching, after the last line, as Prospero pressed his palms together in supplication to the big moon over our heads. We sat there. And sat, while Prospero looked up at the moon. Finally, there was a single soft clap, then another, and big applause. Mr. Fielder turned and looked down at someone and wiped his brow in relief and laughed pretty hard.
I could hardly get off my oil can, but someone from Krannert announced a “talkback” afterward with cast and director, and Mrs. Churm and I had to stay. A UIUC theater professor said that as familiar as he was with the play, and with Shakespeare in general, it was the first time he’d heard it.
I agree wholeheartedly. In a darkened auditorium, on plush seats, with distance and often poor acoustics, it’s easy to drop out, then come back. “Blood will have blood,” Macbeth says, and you think about how to finish that letter you’ve been writing. “Dear Jimmy,” you scheme. “I’m sorry for wrecking your car….” Sometime later, you come to from your dream within a dream and hear, “Of all men else I have avoided thee,” and realize you’ve missed the third act. This wasn’t possible Thursday night. (You also couldn’t have left if you wanted to.) An extraordinary night.
The performance, intermission, and talkback lasted more than three hours. It was very late indeed by the time we got back home, and the boys woke at their usual time, so we had little sleep. I sat down Friday morning with a cup of coffee and began to type with one hand, since I needed to hold myself up as I slumped sideways in the chair with the other, due to crippling back spasms. Mrs. Churm had a lesser migraine from a stiff neck. But I told her that if the next night’s performance hadn’t been sold out for weeks, if there were a babysitter available, and a nurse and a driver to get me back to the University of Illinois; if they’d let me lie on the stage instead of sit on a tin can, I’d go see it again.
Thing is, I’m not a fan of No and Can’t. With the Krannert Center’s help, I found tickets, and we went Friday night too.
To be continued….