Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Donmar Warehouse brings all-woman "Tempest" to St. Ann's

Harriet Walter, above,
and Jade Anouka, below,
in the Donmar Warehouse production of The Tempest
(photo: Teddy Wolff)




How seductive--and risky--to interfere in the natural course of things for one's own ends. In The Tempest, Shakespeare's magician Prospero does just that. An aggrieved man--stripped of his noble status, surviving banishment and near-death--he fully believes in the rightness of uncommon power to control everything from the forces of nature to the romantic life of his daughter. He can twist to his designs everything from the quicksilver spirits of the air to a more fleshy, animal-like Other. Here, on his island of exile, he has enslaved two of each--Ariel, a clever sprite, and Caliban, considered uncivilized and monstrous--yet will come, at last, to learn he is the least free being of all.

As re-imagined by director Phyllida Lloyd for London's Donmar Warehouse and presented now in its US premiere run at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, The Tempest unfolds the elaborate fantasy of an inmate doing hard time in a women's prison. Played with attentive, full-throttle investment by Harriet Walter, 66-year old Hannah has served thirty-five years of a 75-years-to-life sentence for her role as getaway driver in a robbery and murder that, she explains, had radical political motivations. We first glimpse her fellow inmates--most, women of color; she is white and Jewish--as they file through the lobby and into the theater ahead of us. When we enter, we ring their performance space on all sides as if it were a basketball court shrunk in size to give us close-up views of all the action. Characters climb or dash up and down the stairs or park themselves on the highest tiers and, at one point, we even get to play a role in the visual atmosphere of the play.

The first sensations we perceive are unyielding, mercilessly metallic--from the theater's own stark, technical features to the "cell doors" positioned at the top of the audience aisles to the grinding, rumbling, thunderous sounds that suggest the deadly, unnatural storm secretly conjured by Prospero/Hannah. That initial act of will sets the play's characters on a path that will expose and undermine a magician's desire to interfere with reality.

Like previous parts of Lloyd's Shakespearean trilogy--Julius Caesar (2012) and Henry IV (2014), which I have not seen--this Tempest's male roles are played by women actors, all representing women prisoner characters you can meet in a series of short video clips here. So, reality continuously intermingles with fantasy. Lloyd's characters are based on the stories of real women inmates who collaborated with her team on the development of this work. In fact, New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, recently commuted the sentence of Judith Clark, the model for Walter's Hannah, convicted for her role in the 1981 Brinks robbery.

Shakespeare's Miranda--a female role--is played with Black punk-dyke style and zest by young Leah Harvey. Sheila Atim, her nominally-male Ferdinand, the shipwrecked prince, arrives on their wedding day in a thrift shop outfit as whimsically girly/boy-ly as her own.

Overall, the understated suppleness and focused power of these performances should quiet any objection to the non-traditional casting. It's exhilarating to see how performers like Jackie Clune (Stefano), Karen Dunbar (Trinculo) and the especially vivid and vivacious Jade Anouka (Ariel) simply muscle their way past any gender-related expectations a viewer might have. They make their characters live, and you have no say in the matter.

Composer Joan Armatrading  and movement director Ann Yee throw their own charm into the mix, especially in the wonderful wedding celebration. But for Hannah, and her audience, it's soon time to let dreams and make-believe go and face what is.

The Tempest runs through February 19. Running time: 2 hours, no intermission. For information and tickets, click here.

St. Ann's Warehouse
45 Water Street, Brooklyn
(Google map/directions)

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