The Tempest directed by Michael Mendelson for Portland Shakespeare Project at Artist Repertory Theatre, Portland, Oregon, USA. 24 July 2014.
Reviewed by Lois Leveen
In a post-Taymor/Mirren world, has it already become conventional to cast a woman as the lead in The Tempest? Or, more pertinent to Portland Shakespeare Project’s current production, can a director still do something new by transforming Prospero into Prospera?
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, the Scholar-in-Residence at the Portland Shakespeare Project and a professor at Linfield College, told me he worries that answering such a question always devolves into essentialism—the assumption that are inherent “masculine” or “feminine” behaviors and emotions. For his part, director Michael Mendelson said he felt that casting a female in the lead allowed him to invoke a long tradition of plays about women, which tend to be more about reconciliation than revenge. On the surface, this view seems to confirm the very essentialist assumptions about gender that Pollack-Pelzner hoped to move past. Yet the production itself – which I viewed after both these conversations – offers audiences far more nuanced ideas of what a newly invented female character can bring to a Shakespeare play.
Linda Alper, who in the course of 23 seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival appeared in over 50 productions, delivers a powerful and moving performance as an undeniably female Prospera. But although Alper provides the emotional anchor for the production, ultimately what I found most striking about this Tempest stems from the inclusion of a second gender transformation, with Prospera’s rival sibling now a sister, Antonia, played by Adrienne Flagg. Antonia’s presence allows the production to convey more complexity and ambiguity about the relationship between gender and power than viewers found in Taymor’s Tempest, which ends with Mirren laced back into her corset, casting off her magic (and-oh-so-phallic) staff, and returning to a world run by men.
Alper’s stage Prospera is more of an upper-class earth-mother (here in the Pacific Northwest, these two archetypes need not be antipodal): her costume is flowing, her feet bare, her demeanor both centered and central even in the midst of otherworldly enchantments. Antonia, by contrast, wears a bodaciously form-fitting power suit, fishnet stockings, and towering high heels she refuses to relinquish even after one of them is sundered in the shipwreck.
This Antonia oozes an aggressive sexuality, most particularly over Gary Powell as Sebastian. Her come-on
is so strong as she urges him to kill his sleeping brother and seize the throne (2.1.921-1037), the audience might well wonder how Lady Macbeth happened to wash up on the island. Or, more tellingly, how any director or actor could make a male Antonio speaking the same lines at all believable—short of queering the role—for Antonia seems to lay bare that nothing but the deepest, greediest lust for power and for sexual pleasure could drive this exchange.
By giving us two women rulers, Mendelson subverts any clear binaries of male versus female. Ambition, plotting, deception—both sisters display their share of these characteristics, although their characters are undeniably different. Femininity here is manifold, and manifests in ways that defy easy categorizing. Just when we might think Antonia’s villainy lies in her display of “unwomanly” political ambition and bloodthirstiness (think of every female executive who’s criticized for the very sort of actions that are celebrated attributes of male corporate success), the Stephano-Trinculo-Caliban interactions remind us that men, too, can be power-hungry and bent on violence, albeit in ways that are more bumbling than threatening. And when, just before revealing Stephano’s plotting, Prospera assures Antonia (and Sebastian) that she “will tell no tales” of their regicidal treachery, the exchange resonates with the strange mix of love, envy, resentment, and instinctive protection that crackles between any two sisters.
But this Tempest, like so many productions, is haunted by a third female: Sycorax. Ever absent, she is to me the most troubling and significant figure to have set foot on the island. Hearing Prospero condemn “This damn’d witch” who performed “mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible” (1.1.399-400) has always seemed a revelation of deep misogyny, for we learn nothing of Sycorax’s magic that distinguishes it from Prospero’s own, except that it was performed by a figure Prospero repeatedly insists was a “hag.” The emphasis given to Sycorax’s pregnancy and childbirth further underscores that what is most truly female is presented in this play as also most villainous, most terrifying, and most condemned.
The misogynistic valence disappears when Prospera delivers the same lines. But what’s left instead is the unspoken question of what then does separate the play’s two magic-wielding mothers. If with Sycorax, Shakespeare seems to tell us what he thinks not only of female magic but also of a cultural (and perhaps racial) other—it is the latter alone that comes out here. Themes of slavery and colonialism inevitably pervade The Tempest, yet they receive scant attention in this particular production, which makes the “othering” of both the unseen Sycorax and the extremely embodied Caliban all the more troubling (Caliban is played adeptly enough by Matthew Kerrigan as spry and cunning although ultimately too obsequious and inept to warrant any sympathy from the audience or any of the other characters).
Ultimately, the pairing of Prospera and Antonia is what is essential in this production, albeit without falling into any essentialism, at least when it comes to gender.
(Full disclosure: although I was unaware until I arrived at the theater that Adrienne Flagg was part of the production, she and I do have a prior personal connection: she assisted me in organizing the annual local honey tasting for Portland Urban Beekeepers. Yes, dear readers, Where the bee sucks / there suck we)