French Spark Notes for Shakespeare
An exclamation point. Not La tempete, but La Tempete! With enthusiasm? Or angst? This fall, in my models of dramatic structure class, I studied the Tempest as the model of Tragicomedy. So before I even stepped into Les Bouffes de Nord, I kept wondering what this exclamation point signified. If the play in Irina Brook’s incarnation is still a tragicomedy, shouldn’t she have an upside down exclamation point as well? In order to balance out her title? How close to the Tempest would la Tempete be?
Furthermore, in changing the title of the piece by adding an exclamation point, was Irinia Brook also changing the structure of the piece? Was this piece of punctuation merely a marketing ploy? A way to separate this Tempest production from her father’s Tempest? Or was this an attempt to create the feel of the “immediate” theater within her title-doing a play predominately categorized in her father’s work as historically “rough” theater and making sure it wasn’t dead by adding this exclaimed punch, nor too holy-livening up the Tempest with an exclamation point.
Whatever her goal, I was quite intrigued by taking such a bold stance on Shakespeare. I also have to frame my response with the fact that I saw Sam Mendez’ Tempest a few months ago at BAM. Thus, before I even stepped into Les Bouffes de Nord, I was coming to the theater with some serious Tempest baggage. However, I let go of my Tempest preconceptions as much as possible and instead looked forward to my third installment of the Tempest this year.
In Shakespeare’s Tempest, the play begins in crisis, in a tempest. In Brook’s production, Miranda is in crisis; she is the emotional tempest of the play, quite angry on her 30th birthday, and we witness her before the literal Tempest is conjured. But two Tempests are then present, and we watch Miranda soften in love. Brook’s production focused on the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand, and this lens was lovely-I myself fell a little in love, with the willowy, geek-chic, Ferdinand. The choice to make Miranda and Ariel best friends was also a sweet new choice for the play. But Shakespeare’s themes of power and control are lost in focusing on this romance, and as a result Prospero, the powerhouse of the play, felt like a secondary character. While I found Brook’s Tempete fun, intimate, young and incredibly well acted, Brook's Tempete choices ultimately diminished the grandeur, scale, and arc of Shakespeare’s Tempest, without adding much new depth.
Brook’s metaphor of Prospero as the owner of the largest “pizzeria du monde,” while clever and current, lacked the weight of Shakespeare’s original choice of Prospero as Duke of Milan. Moreover, doing the Tempest with five actors is exciting and novel, but having Prospero, the manipulating magician, and Ariel, the omniscient, double as other characters changes the entire piece, weakening themes of dominance and manipulation. Had Brook not had Prospero fall into the character of Stephano, and instead had him act as puppeteer, even had him play with the vegetable as Ariel did earlier, I feel that the double casting would have been more successful. But maybe six actors would have been an overall better choice…
Brook made some necessary cuts-wisely cutting the bizarre Cerus scene, and rather unwisely cutting many of the Alfonso, Antonio, and Gonzalo scenes. The latter mentioned scenes in Shakespeare’s version mirror the events that happened to Prospero, underlining the cyclical nature of the play, just as Caliban’s past is mirrored as he is again colonized. Although Brook’s cuts created a streamlined effect, again the idea and focus on Prospero was lost, as well as his character arc-which seriously affected the end of the play, in which Brook chose to cut the famous epilogue and oddly have Prospero choose to stay behind. Thus, the idea of vengeance for Prospero in Shakespeare’s text is another theme lost, and the idea of solitude is what replaces it.
In some ways, Brook creates her own new cyclical pattern within LaTempete, from her added prologue of Prospero’s ritual, where he simultaneously warmed up and made a real breakfast on stage. Yet, once again Brook’s choices while ingenious to a certain extent, ultimately watered down the potency of the play, exorcising its richness. She closed the play as opposed to opening it up to the audience and breaking the fourth wall; the play’s ending felt bittersweet and tidy as opposed to the original bold, bizarre, and brave ending.
I thought that Brook’s new reincarnation of Shakespeare’s language made the text clean and clear in French. But again, the neat prose cut the flowery nature of Shakespeare’s text, exorcising the grandeur of Shakespeare’s vivid language, while oddly adding much American English. Was this English because of Brook’s roots? In some ways, I can’t help but feel that Brook’s cuts and language made the play feel like a teenage girls version of French Spark Notes for Shakespeare, focusing on Miranda and reducing the play to a love story.
I did enjoy Brook’s meta-theatrical language choices-the references to Romeo, sonnet 18, and Shakespeare himself reminding the audience that this isn’t Shakespeare’s Tempest; yet, when Shakespeare was so frequently mentioned her economical change and choice of language in tandem with the pizzeria metaphor led the play to feel incredibly light. I understand why she decided to go the pizzeria route-very accessible for modern audiences, and highlighting this idea of Italy. Her program note on this choice was quite lovely-but I don’t go to the theater for loveliness. I go to be awakened, I go to feel something visceral, and I go to be released.
I have some unfair expectations for Ms. Brook, as she is an heiress to Peter Brook. I was really looking forward to her imagery and yes there were several imaginative moments. But I still sadly cannot say that the piece had what her father termed as a “burning image.” Mendez’ Tempest at BAM, where Caliban bursts out from underneath the sand onstage is much more memorable Tempest imagery. Irina’s work never reached a revolutionary point for me-dare I say, in the best way possible, her work verged on the word charming.
Perhaps this is linked to my reading as Prospero as a truly, menacing character-he tells and manipulates history, which in conjunction with his magic allows him to control all. In making his wand a little stick, or a whisk, Prospero was never threatening, maybe this is also because of his cute Italian accent. I felt no danger in the play, where were the stakes? Where was the drama?
The play was theatrical in style, if not in content, and that I loved. There were many times I felt like I was at a circus; Prospero’s maitre-D outfit quite resembled the costume of a ringleader and the physicality of the actors was quite impressive. But Brook’s choices are inconsistent; I couldn’t stop focusing on the fact that Caliban and Prospero wore shoes, but Ariel did not, and then Miranda later put shoes on…What were the rules of the play? I’m all for breaking rules, but these rules just felt muddy.
Overall, I found La Tempete to be an enjoyable night of theater, even though my remarks are quite critical; Brook is young and I can tell. That exclamation point? Youthful exuberance, some sass, a wink from Brook. But this cheeky exclamation point and Brook’s entire production truthfully missed the real mark and watered down the potency of Shakespeare’s masterpiece.