By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It never stops raining in the version of The Tempest that’s now lashing and splashing and skidding across the Citadel mainstage. As the Fool in Twelfth Night sings (borrowed by this wettest of Tempests for the occasion), “the rain it raineth every day.”
It’s a measure of dark originality of Josette Bushell-Mingo’s high-precipitation production that its opening pair of images, wordless both, are juxtaposed so violently.
Rain lashes a huge, looming wreck of a ship (designer: Drew Facey) as a father in its shadow cradles his daughter protectively as she sleeps. In the other image, that father, kneeling and compliant, shouts in agony as a tattered figure hammers a long spike into his bare back, over and over. Torture? Self-willed flagellation? Moral retribution? An over-empowered tattoo artist with an ax to grind? When he turns we see a black circle, like a noose, engraved on the father’s flesh.
And that is how we meet Prospero (Lorne Cardinal), a rightful duke with a gift for the dark arts, fuming in exile on a remote island ever since he was deposed by an evil brother. And his innocent daughter Miranda (the luminous Thurga Kanagasekarampillai). And a forlorn local islander with grievances of his own, Caliban (Ray Strachan).
It’s been a season at the Citadel that has ventured into new ways of storytelling — witness the simultaneous pairing of an immersive free-associative comedy and a full-on door-slammer of a farce with a single cast (The Party and The Candidate, just ended). And now, as the season finale (and finale of the Citadel-Banff Professional Program that trains the cast), Edmonton’s largest playhouse takes a leap into complex inclusivity in a 90-minute bilingual (spoken English/ ASL) production with a multi-cultural ensemble of deaf and hearing actors.
Half speak; half do not. All, however, embrace a heightened acting style, flamboyant physicality, and hurl themselves into the striking theatricality of Bushell-Mingo’s stagecraft and water-soaked imagery. May I single out an outstanding performance from Braydon Dowler-Coltman as Ferdinand, flung to the watery deep again and again by Prospero’s dark magic? Or Nadien Chu as the queen of Naples, stabbed to death by a treacherous ally and springing back to life over and over, as pulled upright by Prospero’s unseen power?
The tricky business of interpretation across the language and sound/sight divide has ingenious solutions in the production: there are half a dozen versions of Ariel, Prospero’s disaffected sprite assistant. And, like an energetic zombie chorus, they carry out his orders and interpret — some ASL to spoken English, some English to ASL. Sometimes speech is chanted in unison, sometimes not.
Not only is there less of the poetry of The Tempest, there are interpolations from other Shakespeare plays that land nimbly on their feet in the production. You’ll hear fragments of Romeo and Juliet in the charming budding-romance scene between Ferdinand (Dowler-Coltman) and Miranda (Kanagasekarampillai), for example, where their struggle for communication —he hears and speaks; she is deaf and signs — is lyrically invoked as part of the storytelling. They write in the water on the stage; they find common ground in the ASL and English signs for “heart.”
You’ll hear Lady Macbeth’s pep talk in the murderous subplots involving Prospero’s shipwrecked enemies, with a little Midsummer Night’s Dream thrown in for some tweaking of the interplay between Caliban and the comic characters.
Purists may balk. But purists have always been nonplussed by The Tempest. And why wouldn’t they be? For centuries this most mysterious of Shakespeare’s plays, a late-period romance full of magical interventions and spectacle, has always invited — demanded, really —strangeness and original re-invention. Hey, when the goddess Iris just drops an enchanted banquet into the proceedings, the director has to step up, right?.
This condensed version does something unusual: it reimagines Shakespeare’s late-period romance and turns it into an out-and-out tragedy. Prospero the magus is not just the stage manager of the tempest, the conductor of the storm that brings his enemies within his grasp. His fury is the tempest. And his all-consuming thirst for revenge, which conjures the other characters from the foggy, lurid hold of the phantom ship, destroys his world.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on” will become the stuff of nightmares. And when Prospero the dad finally wakes up it’s to a “reality” that will allude, both in word and image, to another Shakespearean dad, who made some disastrous choices about his third daughter and his kingdom.
Although he presides from the very top deck of the ship, there is nothing serene and magisterial — to invoke the most persistent 19th century clichés — about Cardinal’s Prospero. Cardinal, who has a four-square incantatory style of delivery, is a formidable presence. But, in the interests of focus, he’s asked to hit the same note of vengeful anger, so often and so relentlessly, that a certain repetition begins to weigh on the production.
And you may well feel you’re missing something of the poetic arc of a play that finds a route, however circuitous or difficult or costly, to a kind of resolution. This is especially true in a production that acknowledges the toxic colonial strain of dispossession built into Prospero’s situation: a victim of usurpation who becomes himself an usurper. As Caliban points out repeatedly “this island in mine!”.
Pure rage is a difficult emotion to sustain indefinitely onstage. And so are the comic antics of the phantasmagorical pageant of thugs, led by Stephano (Troy O’Donnell) and Trincula (Elizabeth Morris). Although set forth with sprightly invention on the water-covered stage, they are tiring company in the long (OK, the medium) haul of the production.
But I think you’ll be fascinated by the production’s stunning interconnected imagery, enhanced dramatically by the gorgeous lighting of Bonnie Beecher and a remarkable sound design by composer Dave Clarke. The latter has a thunderous rumbling buzz and the industrial roar of tectonic plates, or a kind of cosmic heart-beat drumming, that will vibrate in every ribcage. It’s sound to be felt not heard.
The glass cage in which one of the Ariels is encased, and against which the force of Prospero’s wrath hurls Ferdinand again and again, is linked to the scene in which Ferdinand and Miranda overcome their sense of the Other, and “discover” each other. Which might be a metaphor for the entire production.
And that, in the end, is what this “insubstantial pageant faded,” does leave behind, beyond the thought that vengeance might be a dead end (move on Prospero, move on). The zombies vanish into the netherworld. The world of theatre is there for the sharing. It’s all a matter of communication, and a wide embrace.
Directed by: Josette Bushell-Mingo
Starring: Lorne Cardinal, Thurga Kanagasekarampillai, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Nadien Chu, Jarret Cody, Derek Kwan, Ray Strachan, Troy O’Donnell, Elizabeth Morris, Barbara Poggemiller, Denise Read, Hodan Youssouf, Hayley Hudson, Sage Lovell, Suchiththa Wickremeso
Running: through May 12
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com