Something Rich and Strange

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
The Tempest

The set was the first clue that the Sonoma Repertory Theater’s presentation of The Tempest was going to be different. A metal frame, swathed in heavy cotton cloth with fragments of text from the play stenciled onto it, greeted my eyes as I walked to my second-row seat. The frame, sitting close to the front of the stage, formed a portal. Behind it, two triangles of cloth, stretched taut, looked like sails, or wings. The backdrop was stenciled with alchemical symbols; a caduceus, an angel’s head, and characters that could have been Greek or Hebrew.

I knew to expect puppets. I just didn’t know exactly what that meant. Hand puppets? Marionettes? Shadow puppets? Several years ago, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I saw shadow puppets used beautifully in Life is a Dream. Looking at the stage for The Tempest, I could not imagine shadow puppets.

In fact, there is some shadow-puppet imagery in the show. The character puppets, though, are super-hand-puppets. This is nothing like Avenue Q. I don’t know exactly how to describe it. All the actors wore black and black masks. They were not invisible but we clearly were invited to ignore them. They held the puppets, which are about 3/4 life size, in front of them with one hand. The other hand was the character’s/puppet’s hand, if that makes sense.

The puppets themselves are detailed masks with rich costumes hanging from them. The heads swivel and tilt but the eyes and lips do not move. Emotion is portrayed by their posture—they grovel, they cower, crouch, dance, and stand upright. And of course, the actors’ voices convey most of the emotion. Five actors voiced all the parts.

Prospero is the only character who in not in “puppet mode” the entire time. This is a nice touch. It not only renders literal what Prospero is doing to the people he has drawn to his enchanted island, it allows him, when he puts aside the “mask” of Prospero, father of Miranda, former Duke of Milan, to be larger than life. And Prospero, whether you like him or hate him, is definitely larger than life.

This worked well. Most of the concepts employed worked. The shadow-puppet shipwreck at the beginning was convincing. One glaring exception is the “pageant” Prospero displays for Miranda and Ferdinand. This element plays as a light-shadow show on the backdrop, and looks like a made-for-TV-movie acid trip circa 1975.

The puppets are exquisite. Ariel is the strangest of the puppets (there were clearly more than one, at least three if we count the “witch” figure with which Prospero terrorizes his enemies). Miranda’s face is lovely and has an unfinished look befitting a character as naïve and sheltered as she is. My favorites, strictly in terms of looks, were Gonzalo and Trinculo, who is designed as a classic jester.

The least troublesome part of the play, the subplot in which a drunken Caliban enlists the aid of two shipwreck survivors, is as hilarious as it should be.

The Tempest is a problem for me. I know we’re not supposed to bring a twenty-first century sensibility to a seventeenth-century play, but I can’t stop myself. Prospero is not only cold, controlling and vengeful, he is unfair. I can’t get past the unfairness. That said, this production seems to focus on Prospero more as the magician, or perhaps the artist, making him, as I said, larger than life, manipulating the lives around him like so many puppets. Caliban and Ariel can be the root and wing of the artistic impulse, and at the end, Prospero does reluctantly acknowledge Caliban, that bit of “misbegotten darkness,” as his own.

I have to admit, given the custom in Shakespeare’s time of mounting the heads of criminals and enemies on pikes and displaying them, I found the final scene a bit macabre. Is that intentional?

The collaboration with The Independent Eye is playing through October 18. Tickets are $23 for adults and $18 for students and seniors. If you are looking for a theater experience that isn’t ordinary, this would be it. This production will work for older children, twelve and above, but be sure they’ve read a synopsis or already know the story, so they don’t have to struggle to decipher it, and can fully enjoy the spectacle.

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