Monday, July 21, 2014

Revisiting Shakespeare: Why two plays (in current local productions) that examine free will vs. determinism are also obsessed with theater

In its sixth year, the summer Shakespeare production presented by Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre will make a point of bridging the White River State Park reality with the enchanted-island fantasy of "The Tempest."

Familiar to IRT audiences, Robert Neal is HART's Prospero.
"There will be a different look to this production," promises HART producing artistic director Diane Timmerman. "It will bring us into this world — the park is the setting, and also the island" ruled by the main character, the wizard Prospero, played by Robert Neal.

The selection of "The Tempest," the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own, only five years before his death in 1616, is an obvious milestone in the most illustrious career in world theater. Timmerman said HART chose it also for its "magical, all-encompassing" quality in observance of the 450th anniversary of the poet-playwright's birth.

Its presentation July 31 (preview) and Aug. 1 and 2 comes on the heels of another local production of one of the Bard's best-loved plays, "Hamlet," an adaptation by R. Brian Noffke for his Acting Up Productions. Remaining performances — outdoors at Marian University — are July 24, 25 and 26. The show is also notable for the casting of a woman (Lauren Briggeman) as Hamlet in a modern-dress version.

HART began in 2006 as an actor-centered volunteer project to put on shows, sometimes as staged readings, dear to its members' hearts. Productions during the regular season gradually faded from the schedule, but are likely to return with HART's fortunes now on a firmer footing, Timmerman told me, plus a recent link to Butler University. The overwhelmingly professional stature of the company accounts for a considerable part of its expenses.

"There is no change in the company" from an artistic standpoint, she added. "We all share a passion for Shakespeare, but we want to do contemporary work as well."

Ferdinand and Miranda find love on the enchanted isle.
"The Tempest" is directed by a new staff member of Indiana Repertory Theatre, associate artistic director Courtney Sale, whose move to Indianapolis in 2013 was in large part inspired by seeing Neal portray culinary celebrity James Beard in IRT's 2011 production of "I Love to Eat" by James Still, IRT's playwright in residence.

Sale is upfront about her orientation toward visual storytelling. She's not burdened by excessive reverence for Shakespeare's text; the storm scene that opens "The Tempest" will use none of the Bard's words. Much of her past student and professional experience has involved helming "devised" shows — presentations that evolve collectively without a pre-existing script.

Among the aspects of "The Tempest" that move her, she told me, is the extreme youth and innocence of the two young lovers, Prince Ferdinand and Prospero's daughter, Miranda.  "They are really young, and they are the hope for the future," Sale said. So she has cast for fresh-faced ingenuousness in those roles, putting Ross Percell and Zoe Turner in a cast that includes such veterans as Charles Goad, Ryan Artzberger, Ben Tebbe, Mark Goetzinger, Scot Greenwell, and Adam Crowe.


Then there’s the problematic character of Prospero. “I’m fascinated by his difficult nature,” Sale said. “There’s revenge, rage and schemes in Prospero — it’s nice to have that represented. I don’t use a scholarly or cerebral approach to him; I’m making it relational.”

Prospero, like Hamlet, is preternaturally aware of the constraints on free action, a parallel that I explored in May in a half-dozen blog posts under the headline: "Bound and determined: Hamlet, Prospero, and the puzzled will." My six-part series on "Hamlet" and "The Tempest" starts here, and comprises the five posts that follow.

I think one outcome of Prospero's and Hamlet's intense awareness — that control of ourselves, as well as our influence on others, is out of our hands — is the playwright's fascination with his business and his metier: theater itself. Prospero stages a masque to entertain the young lovers, whose eventual union is part and parcel of his scheme to get justice for himself. Life intrudes in the form of a clownish but potentially dangerous conspiracy to overthrow him, and art must yield. A fussy, self-conscious stage manager, as Northrop Frye has pointed out, finds it difficult to allow anything to happen as it will.

Prospero had been forced from his dukedom in Milan by his wily brother, with the connivance of Alonso, the King of Naples, and has established dominion by magical means over an island inhabited only by the beastly Caliban. The ousted duke's enemies are now under his control, along with several high and low characters, as shipwreck survivors following the storm the magician and his servant sprite Ariel engineered. 

Theater is an art in which the contradictions of freedom and determined action are necessarily balanced by actors. They have, of course, rehearsed the course of the characters' lives to the extent the playwright has set it out. But from moment to moment as they play their parts, they have to act as if they don't know how whatever problems the script entangles them in will be resolved.

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith in 2013 revival of "The Glass Menagerie"
This illusion is essential:  We must share apprehensions of reality with onstage figures who, we are persuaded, are people living within the kind of limits we face every day. Even if we have seen or read "The Glass Menagerie," for example, we have to share a smidgen of Amanda Wingfield's hope that the Gentleman Caller will transform Laura's pathetic existence. If (unlikely though it may be) the actress playing Amanda isn't very good, the certainty that all the anxious mother's plans will end in disappointment floods in upon us. Our capacity to feel can be sucked dry by our determinist demons. 

Tennessee Williams is particularly good at prying out of us an emotional investment in illusions that may be obviously removed from reality. Life has to appear open-ended: the Gentleman Caller could be unattached and become smitten by Laura, who could conceivably rise to the occasion. Amanda's desperate hopefulness has to retain at least a shred of plausibility. Free will and the possibility of change need to be palpable, just as we feel they must be in our lives. Any dramatic production has to make us taste the sweetness of free thought and action moving independently of fate.

This might help explain the apparently self-serving digression of Hamlet's "advice to the players" who visit Elsinore. As his creator's practical experience taught him, Hamlet acknowledges the damage overacting can do to the illusion of free will. An actor chewing the scenery, going beyond an essential simplicity of speech and gesture, calls attention to the artificiality of the stage.

We sense a fatal mimicry in such actors, already overloaded with foreknowledge of where their characters will be at the end of the show — or their disappearance from the stage, whichever comes first. If acting lacks the naturalness of human beings who in fact try to impose their will on events without being sure of the outcome, it is compromised. It's thus more than a matter of bad taste, Hamlet insists (possibly as the voice of Shakespeare himself), when actors "tear a passion to tatters."

We don't want to be reminded that actors know more than their characters, or to accept that their expression must be outsized because everything they do and say is predetermined. In the same manner, away from the stage, actors and audiences alike keep at bay the possibility that all our apparent freedom follows a course set far beyond our ken.

We may be lucky enough to get some knowledge once we have run the course, as Prospero and Hamlet show they have in wonderful speeches near the end of their respective plays. But we can't count on anything like their questionably good fortune. Theater helps us soldier on anyway.

[Photo credit for "The Tempest"/HART: Julie Curry]