High-Concept 'Tempest' Reconsiders Work

Photo: Hands across the water. Cutting Ball Theater resets Shakespeare's last work at the bottom of a swimming pool, to great effect.
Rob Melrose/Courtesy
Hands across the water. Cutting Ball Theater resets Shakespeare's last work at the bottom of a swimming pool, to great effect.

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San Francisco's Cutting Ball Theater pushes "The Tempest," Shakespeare's final romance, to the edge. Director Rob Melrose takes the island setting and transports it to a psychiatrist's office at the bottom of a swimming pool, and asks us to dive in. Yes, you read that correctly: the bottom of a swimming pool.

And that's not even the most daring move this production makes. Cutting Ball's "Tempest" cuts the normally 10-plus actor cast down to three actors, and shapes their identities in terms of a highly psychological reading of the play. As the show opens, Prospero and his daughter Miranda appear to be in the throes of some sort of counseling session, Prospero playing the role of the psychiatrist, and Miranda the patient. The "tempest" that brings to shore the Duke of Milan, his son Ferdinand and their colorful crew of fellow mariners appears to be much less an actual storm than the torment taking place within Miranda's mind. From the beginning, the play enters difficult territory - the realm of the human psyche is dangerous, albeit fascinating territory to tread.

The personalities of the three major characters (Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand) are subsequently projected upon the remaining roles - Caitlyn Louchard's Miranda becomes Ariel instantly at Prospero's bidding, and Donell Hill's Caliban is more a primal division of Ferdinand's subconscious. Prospero becomes a sort of puppet master, his cruelty ever more evident as he manipulates the other characters. With such a small cast, it was absolutely imperative that the acting be phenomenal. In this regard, the production more than measures up - the powerful lines in the play, though placed in this new context, ring truer than ever.

Why the swimming pool then? Your guess is as good as mine. One thing, though, is certain: From a visual standpoint, this play is amazing. The set is a piece of brilliance, leaving the small EXIT on Taylor Theater utterly transformed. This coupled with astoundingly subtle special effects (think echoes of the actors' voices) makes that bottom-of-a-swimming-pool mystique of eerie isolation almost tangible.

To someone who knows "The Tempest" well enough, picking out the storyline from this production is an intriguing puzzle. However, to someone who doesn't, well, it's somewhat of an intriguing mess. The play expects a lot of its audience: It draws you into an absurd world and urges you to follow it through Shakespearean language and split-second (though seamless) character changes all while actively filling in the philosophical blanks. If you miss a beat, you might simply wind up sitting there, marveling at the spectacle of the given moment (the production is wonderfully acrobatic) but with very little actual idea of what the hell is going on. This brainy reading of the play is novel, but the difficulty of making this production work is getting Shakespeare to fit within the interpretation.

And in many ways, it is successful - it takes a lot of confusing and interesting questions about the play and opens them up for psychological dissection under this new light. Every piece of this show is thought-provoking - the only problem being that the way these pieces fit together is not entirely coherent. The interpretation has a hard time finding itself in the end. This raises the question: Does it really matter that by the end of the play, we as an audience aren't entirely sure what strange, enchanted island or brave new world (that has such people in it!) we have landed in?

Arielle Little is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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