Lit Moon Theatre Company, Santa Barbara, USA
Director: John Blondell
Review by Randall Martin
The gritty basement storage area of the Bitola National Theatre looked like a good space for some rough magic. Floor-to-ceiling v-shaped support-beams, with hanging knotted ropes and swinging poles, suggested the deck of a ship or a New World forest. An ingénue Miranda (Maria Ponce) in a pretty dress bicycled a few tight circuits until a thunderous chord from the onstage double bass knocked her to the ground to observe her father’s life-changing shipwreck.
Lit Moon’s journey from exile and revenge to romantic love and reconciliation was fast-paced and generally light-hearted, with intermittent patches of darkness. The close playing-space allowed us to see the haunted eyes of Stanley Hoffman’s Prospero, his memories of losing Milan still raw, more vengeful in sorrow than in anger, and existentially turmoiled in the face of losing his daughter and his approaching mortality. These conflicts betrayed a vulnerability that made his later turn to forgiveness seem to come mainly from within. Since he wasn’t terribly magisterial, there seemed less authority for Prospero to give up, despite his displays of theatrical power. The sharpest sign of this sub-omnipotence was his failure to assimilate Caliban.
Victoria Finlayson was the first white actor I have seen playing the role in some time, and she was neither conventionally deformed nor savage. Caliban wore baggy clothes and a tight-fitting fabric cowl with little horns in the front and back, more zoological or circus-like than demonic in appearance. To some spectators in this formerly Ottoman region it might have suggested a kind of fool’s hijab. Visually it reminded me distantly of an Ingmar Bergman peasant-monk. But mainly this Caliban was a monstrous creation of Prospero’s punishments, a bistro chair tied painfully to his hunched back like Bunyan’s burden. He quietly shed it to fetch more wood, and the temporary freedom allowed him to “ban ban” square-dance rhythms with Stephano and Trinculo in drink. The chair returned to Caliban’s back in the final scene. When Prospero sat down in it as the restored duke, he was oblivious to Caliban’s agony behind him. And when he stood up to head off to the ship, Caliban was left writhing Milan-wards like a trampled worm.
Ariel (Sarah Reynolds) was not only a spirit of airy sounds but seemed virtually freed already. She flung about mischief with cruel delight. With harpy-staccato chords on her guitar, she stridently tortured her master’s enemies – a grief-wracked Alonso, a supercilious Antonio, and an observantly detached Sebastian (respectively played by Matt Tavianini, doubling as Trinculo, Victoria Finlayson, and Michael Bernard, doubling as Stephano. Also doubling Gonzalo was Stanley Hoffman).
Earlier Ariel was joined by a coven of white-veiled wraiths to perplex Ferdinand (a lankily boyish Nolan Hamlin) with an upbeat American folk version of “Full fathom five”. Their mood softened at Ferdinand and Miranda’s wedding masque, where the ghostly minstrels performed for the delighted lovers with white voodoo-angel hand-puppets and blessed them with polychrome soap-bubbles. Ariel’s sweetly dissonant “Where the bee sucks” added a final affective colour to the island’s wonderful range of sounds and songs. These were composed and beautifully integrated into the action by the ambulant personification of the island’s noises, musician Jim Connolly. Together he and Ariel brought forth sonic waves of estrangement and festivity which modeled the final effects of Prospero’s magnanimity, visible in Antonio, outwardly smiling but gesturally tense and oblique.
The topically freighted buffoonery of Stephano and Trinculo often strains to produce satisfying comedy for modern audiences. Yet Lit Moon’s smart and entertaining clowns had the boys sitting behind me laughing with the rest of the audience. Add liquor and this gave way to an unusually aggressive edge to their rivalry over Caliban’s obedience. Michael Bernard, who walked with one foot in a cast and a cane, improvised adeptly from these potential restrictions while adding nice metatheatrical dimensions to his performance. At one point the cane seemed to become a divining rod for the island’s enchantment when its bottom rubber knob popped off while Stephano was being harried by Ariel. Such moments also pointed towards John Blondell’s theatrically self-reflexive ending, which culminated in the actors morphing from their characters into an anthem-reprise of “Full fathom five”.