Friday, January 20, 2012

The Feast: an intimate Tempest

Last night Jess and I took in The Feast: an intimate Tempest at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, a collaboration between the CST and Chicago's innovative Redmoon Theatre (the current site is a temporary stand-in for their new site, coming in March). There's also a hefty dose of Lookingglass Theatre, as two of the three actors onstage have appeared memorably in Lookingglass productions (Samuel Taylor, who plays Ariel, will forever in my mind appear dressed in white atop a unicycle).

I was excited for this production because I love both CST and Redmoon, and because the show's co-director and co-creator, Jessica Thebus, Associate Artist at Steppenwolf, has directed a few of my recent favorites, including last year's Stage Kiss at The Goodman. I suspected, however, that I should have brushed up on my knowledge of The Tempest before going in, and it turns out I was right. Whenever you head into a production that will deconstruct and reconstruct the source material with puppetry and acrobatics it's a good idea to make sure you know the original play or there's a chance you'll drift off for a moment attempting to recall who Alonso and Ariel and Antonio are, and where Ferdinand came from, and how everyone ended up on this crazy island. And in this brisk, dynamic, inspired adaptation, which runs a mere 75 minutes, you don't want to lose focus for a moment.

I generally try to walk into films and plays blindly, in an effort to minimize my expectations. Trailers and reviews will often reveal too much of the plot, or sell something one way when I'll probably interpret it another. I prefer to be surprised. There are a few drawbacks to this approach. One is that some productions rely on prerequisite knowledge that I lack (see: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceau┼čescu), or dump you into a world with which it would help to have at least some familiarity. The Feast: an intimate Tempest is one of those productions. And while I absolutely recommend seeing it, I also recommend that you prepare yourself as much as possible beforehand.

SO, here's what you need to know, in two parts:

1. The Original Play: Prospero, an erudite and powerful man, ruled Milan until his selfish brother Antonio (aided by Alonso, King of Naples) deposed him and cast him out to sea with his three-year-old daughter Miranda. The two landed on a lonesome, enchanted island. Using magic learned from his many books, Prospero rescued a spirit named Ariel, who became his reluctant servant. He also adopted Caliban, a beastly, deformed creature, borne of a witch, and taught him to speak and read. When Caliban attempted to "violate the honour" of Miranda, Prospero made him a slave.

Twelve years later, Prospero lives out his days with his books and his servants, and has decided to seek revenge for what's happened. Using various spells, he divines that his brother is on a boat nearby, creates a terrible tempest, and forces the ship full of his enemies to crash on the island in separate groups. From there, we get a few elaborate Shakespearean subplots: Caliban, enlisting the aid of some drunk men, attempts to kill his master; Prospero pulls some magic strings and sets a scene for his daughter to fall in love with his nephew, Ferdinand; and so on and so forth. Finally, Prospero forgives everyone, frees Ariel and pardons Caliban, and finally asks the audience to free him from the island with their applause: "As you from crimes would pardon'd be, / Let your indulgence set me free." It's an odd play: magic, witches, romance, murder, bitterness, fury, shipwrecks, spirits, metafiction.

2. The Feast: This intimate version takes place in a sparse, lonely room with a large dinner table at the center. Prospero is alone except for his two unwilling servants. From the Directors' Note in the program: "With his axe as a magic staff and his sketches in his magic book, our Prospero has carved a whole world of his own out of wood. He longs to hear the story of his life the way it SHOULD have been, and it unfolds out of this wooden world over which he has complete control. He is not quite alone. He needs his actors to perform the story. Ariel and Caliban, now bound to his command, are his performers and puppeteers."

So Prospero has his puppeteers enact The Tempest over and over, trying to get it right. Ariel is, as ever, dutiful but reluctant, and longing for the freedom he's been promised time and again. Caliban, who thinks the island rightfully his, remains bitter and angry: "You taught me language; and my profit on't is, I know how to curse." Tonight may be the night Prospero finally gets the story right and achieves forgiveness and then, with the help of the audience, release from this island of captivity.

Probably that's enough. You don't need to be a Bard scholar to be taken in by the spectacle. Despite my rustiness on various plot details I was bewitched by the imaginative staging and splendid puppetry (not to mention the remarkable performances by the three actors), and have been thinking of the Feast all day -- sitting in my apartment, watching the tempestuous snowstorm blanket Chicago, rereading the play and re-imagining last night's scenes again and again. They just keep getting better and better.

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