A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 56: The Price

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Rocco Sisto as Caliban and Olympia Dukakis as Prospera in The Tempest at Shakespeare and Company. Photo Kevin Sprague.
Rocco Sisto as Caliban and Olympia Dukakis as Prospera in The Tempest at Shakespeare and Company. Photo Kevin Sprague.

Never have I seen the price of forgiveness so costly on stage as in Olympia Dukakis’s singular, and singularly moving Prospera with Shakespeare and Company. Try to find Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son” and look carefully at the hands of the patriarch, large hands fully outspread, each finger more generous than the other, pressing on the back of the wayward son with a touch the painting tells us the weight of. This is radical forgiveness, almost a blank forgiveness. It is nearly immoral in its extremity of love, as the Prodigal’s brother tells us. This is the near opposite of what I saw in Ms. Dukakis’s performance. Hers was an assumption of the role which was drenched, sometimes even drowning, in resentment. She played these emotions fundamentally, but I saw them more clearly in her efforts to be gentle. I’m thinking now of the scene between Prospera and Miranda near the beginning of the play which was like no other performance I have seen. It was slow, way slow, but Ms. Dukakis is the mistress of time. It made perfect sense that she had to continually ask Miranda to pay attention because the entire scene was silences, knit together with words. Riveting. The risk in it and the intense hearing from both performers brought tears to my eyes. From the onset there was the heavy weight of forgiveness, the price of it laid before us unmistakably, before we knew its cost or even realized its necessity. The comic scenes provided something for me other than relief, but rather a contrast so strong as to make the weight of Prospera’s remorse more heavy. When the great speech comes in Act IV, “Ye elves of hills…”, it was not an actorly moment, though certainly beautiful. It was the continuation of an ongoing decision making, that decision being not less than all. Over and over again, this Prospera made us feel the weight of her forgiveness, the heavy price of it, perhaps the impossibility of it. There was a motherly admonition to virginity, which was bemused rather than orated by a patriarch, and this offered some respite from the continual struggle to forgive, in its gentle harshness. Yes, there was harshness, sharp reproof, but the lines which came most sharply out were self reproof, those reminding Prospera of her duty, her plan to begin another fecundity with Ferdinand and Miranda, and to strive for virtue.

One realizes in a performance like this that Prospera is on stage for a small part of the play. I still heard in her long absences the torment of her decision making, the slowness of it, the effort of getting out each line, that line being part of the process of giving way. This was a performance that dominated, not by virtuosity, but by a profound concentration on the center. Around it there were other beautiful things. Merritt Janson and Ryan Winkles made as fair a pair of young lovers as I have seen. This being the last performance of the season I saw in their acting a risk-taking, fun-lovingness, and natural spontaneity that went to the heart. They were not coy and cutesy-pie. Jonathan Epstein’s slow-witted butler began dimly, and got funnier as he imbibed. This also seemed a very free, even wild performance. It had a brilliance of hearing. Each situation seemed open and new to him. There was a quick-silver Ariel from Kristin Wold, though I think of the character as a more distant and strange character than she made of him/her, her idea was clear and beautifully done. Apollo Dukakis was the best Gonzalo I have seen– clear, completely natural, and believable. His Utopia was inside him and diminished almost to nothing all criticism. The praise meted out to him by Prospera at the end of the play was profoundly beautiful in the way he received it. The direction was un-fussy and direct, the best compliments I can give it.

There was another miracle. Rocco Sisto was the most comprehensive actor of Caliban I have seen. He had wonderful, tremendous fierceness  Partly it was Mr. Sisto’s magnificent voice, one of the most beautiful you will hear on any stage. Partly it was a grandeur of conception, which combined his animal nature with a kind of almost heroic openness and joy. Watching Mr. Sisto made it almost unbearably poignant to realize that the way he was forced to work was physical torture. Reasons are given for why this is necessary in the play, but his Caliban made me disbelieve them all. I don’t think I have heard anything more beautiful on stage than his speech about the islands music. His performance showed why this “monster of the isle” speaks such a speech. His speaking continually sings without leaving the irony of language behind.  This production was a rare thing.

King Lear Redux

The company kindly afforded me a chance to see King Lear again near the end of the run. As before I found the ending radiant. What I took away from the second performance was also a question. I could see that the intelligent Ryan Winkles was trying every which way to make Edgar cohere somehow, and this made me even more aware that this character may be the central actor in the play. Perhaps Cordelia’s counterpart is not the Fool, though personnel necessities may have made that happen in Shakespeare’s company. I started to see Edgar as the counterpart of Cordelia, and in one version they are in fact together at the end of the play. Edgar is the speaking Christ; Cordelia the taciturn Christ. The trumpet blasts three times before Edgar confronts Edmund at the end of the play, just as it does at a crucial moment in Revelations. The part is often excessive. One feels that Edgar goes too far, feigns too much, describes the cliffs of Dover at too great a length, plays the Fool without convincing us fully why. The searching in Mr. Winkles’ performance could be the essence of it all.  Here is a kind of super-theatricality, a super-abundance of mimesis and holy feigning. His acting of the part was a searching which had abundance, not emptiness.

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