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Review: The Tempest at the Guignol

November 11, 2007

The venerable literary critic Harold Bloom writes of The Tempest that no other play in the Shakespeare canon has been misperformed more frequently or drastically. Bloom loathes interpretations of The Tempest that over-politicize the play, turning it into an allegory of the post-colonial quandary, and he sees such interpretative agendas to be the bane of contemporary literary critical theory.

While the recent performance of The Tempest at the University of Kentucky’s Guignol Theatre betrays the political significance of Shakespeare’s Tempest, one wonders if Bloom would still consider this performance among the ill-fated renderings of Shakespeare’s drama. I found director Andrew Kimbrough’s execution of The Tempest to be extremely well-done in some facets and extremely repulsive in others.

Many elements of the play are remarkable, including the staging, props, effects, and scenery; each of these are at least on par with a performance of The Tempest I saw at London’s Old Vic Theatre several years ago. Each facet of the Guingol’s staging for this play is first rate.

While Prospero’s character (Chris Kidder) is impressive, the most effective performance in this Tempest is Ben Hayes’s role as Caliban. Hayes develops a mannerism and a tenor to his voice and personality that are true to the “noble savage” role many other adaptations of the play have imagined. He, like Kidder’s Prospero , masterfully disengage from the scene to address the audience, underscoring significant monologues throughout. Chief among these is Caliban’s searing lines:

“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”

Despite the crude depiction of a third arm, again a pedestrian concession on the part of the director that’s meant to point out Caliban’s status as a monster, Hayes excels.

The Guignol’s Tempest strives to reconcile the demands of Elizabethan language and attempts to deliver the play in such as way that the audience can easily follow along.  At least this is what the director claims in his notes.  Such gestures toward accessibility manifest in many interesting ways, some grossly anachronistic.  Yet I couldn’t help but feel that political critique gets sacrificed at the expense of humor and accessibility.
For instance, take Miranda (played by Courtney Collier), by far the worst character in this version of The Tempest. From the start, she comes across as a whiny bitch, a valley-girl type figure who seems fidgety and incapable of sitting still or focusing her attention on anything for too long. Her high-pitched dialogues with her father, Prospero , grated on my nerves. Much of Miranda’s personality functions, I think, to help bridge the gap between 2007 audiences not used to Elizabethan English and the original depiction of her by Shakespeare.

Miranda’s antics become almost unbearable when she first encounters Ferdinand (Maegan Woodlee). Her obvious attraction makes whatever intervention Ariel is supposed to accomplish irrelevant. She’s just too horny to restrain herself. Of course, Miranda is the one who proposes to Ferdinand in the play–“I am your wife, if you will marry me; / If not I’ll die your maid.” However, it seems that there’s not much trust on the director’s part that the audience will recognize the developing attraction between the characters.

I realized I’d had enough with Miranda by the pentultimate act of the play. In a scene known to many readers of The Tempest, Miranda rises from a game of chess with Ferdinand and notices Alonso & co. walking about the island:

“O wonder!/ How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O, brave new world, / That has such people in ‘t!”

Readers typically imagine Miranda’s speech to be one of ambivalent awe, a meditative utterance of the European conquerer and colonizer. Yet in this run of The Tempest, Miranda sounds like Rosanne Arnold or Fran Drescher as she shrieks, “O, brave new world.” As she excitedly remarks, “How beauteous mankind is,” she gives Gonzolo’s exaggerated phallus a squeeze, which of course elicits laughter from the audience, despite the fact that this moment is among the play’s most solemn sequences.

Given these divergent characterizations, I didn’t know what to make of the Tempest’s final sequence.  After Prospero’s famous soliloquy, in which he asks, “Let your indulgence set me free,” a rousing rendition of Solomon Linda’s anthem, “In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle,” began to blast through the speakers.  The cast and crew danced out on the stage for an encore, and as everyone smiled in jubilation, I couldn’t imagine how anything could have been more of a mood killer.  But maybe this ending is a clever gesture to the checkered past associated with “In the Jungle.”  I don’t know.

I recommend seeing the Guignol’s Tempest.  You’re likely to walk out of the theatre balancing two conflicting assessments:  “That was great,” and “Shakespeare is rolling over in his grave.”

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From → Lexington

4 Comments
  1. Louis Blakeman permalink

    Are your comments regarding Miranda in the Tempest directed to the person playing the part or to the way the director has the character presented in this presentation of the play? I saw the play and am surprised at your seemingly harsh words. I suspect the young lady playing this role will be very discouraged after reading your review.

  2. Louis,
    To be clear, when I am critiquing Miranda’s character in the Tempest, I’m speaking of the way in which the director has imagined this role. I don’t mean that Courtney Collier is a bad actress. In fact, I thought she was excellent in executing the role assigned to her.

    This discussion is what makes the Tempest so interesting to me. At times it wants to be a comedy that is strung together by the budding love relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand, and at other times it wants to be a tragedy, an elegaic lament seen most poignantly in Prospero’s closing monologue and Miranda’s “O, Brave new world” speech.

    So, Miranda (a.k.a. Courtney Collier), don’t be discouraged!

  3. Lisa permalink

    I agreed in part about Miranda’s character, though I saw much less whiny bitch than utter childishness–a preadolescence that only tilted toward sexual awakening in the awkward way a kid hollers “boob!” or somesuch in the middle of Aisle 6 at Kroger because she knows it embarrasses her mom but can’t fully explain why. So it was really hard for me to see any poignancy in Miranda’s growing up and into a “brave new world” — I also agree the last scene was botched. (And I think Collier executed her role well; I just didn’t like the interpretation of the role.)

    I thought the costumes and set were gorgeous! Extremely high production value. Except the third arm. I agree wholeheartedly that it was “a pedestrian concession on the part of the director,” but I also thought Hayes did a very good job in the role.

    What I appreciated most about this production were the Trinculo and Stephano scenes. Trinculo was fantastic–she got the physical comedy just right. (I left my program at home this morning so I am not sure who played Trinculo.) I thought it was a stroke of genius to employ the Commedia dell’arte aesthetic; there’s good reason for it and it worked well, if not harmoniously with the rest of the play.

    It’s out of character for me to say this, and especially coming on the heels of that last comment about appreciating the lazzi-like Trinculo and Stephano scenes, but I could not abide the contemporary musical insets. I usually appreciate the burlesque–and I guess I would call them burlesque entr’actes to an extent—but these fell flat for me. If there was supposed to be some minstrelsy subtext overlaid with Motown matching dinner jackets—a subtext which would make sense given the performers positions (Ariel for the longest of the musical performances and Caliban for the first “Ba-Ban-Caliban” act)—it wasn’t effective enough to serve as commentary on the gravity of enforced servitude; instead it seemed like another pedestrian attempt to update and invigorate the play. I guess I disagree with Bloom sometimes on the staging of this play; I’d have heightened the emphasis on the colonial issues by changing Ferdinand from Italian pageboy to some version of Johnny Roventini’s “Paging Philip Morris” bellhop (http://www.old-time.com/commercials/1950's/Call%20For%20Philip%20Morris.html). I.e., complete pastiche at every turn. A new world ATF vision. (But now I’m just being silly.)

    At the end of it all, I think my greatest trouble with this production was one of not being able to sympathize with or believe any character too well. There were certainly strong performances but I couldn’t bring myself to invest in the characters’ fates well enough.

  4. sarah permalink

    From the responses i understand the play was a success and find it interesting how the tradition of Commedia dell’Arte was applied. I am beginning a research investigation for my International Baccalaureate in Theatre Arts, and would be interested if anyone had any thoughts as to answer the question, or anyone i could contact
    “Applying the style of Commedia Dell’Arte to a performance of the Tempest, how could one perform the characters of Stefano and Trinculo?”

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