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March 21, 2008

TT: Introducing...The Amazing Prospero!

Today's Wall Street Journal drama column consists of a rave and a pan, in that order. First I report on a production of The Tempest that I saw last Sunday in Cambridge, Massachusetts, followed by a review of the American premiere of Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? Here's a sample.

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All theater is magic. Even the most naturalistic of productions seek to deceive us into supposing that the stage we see is really someplace else: a cluttered living room, a sterile doctor's office, a grimy inner-city diner. But few things can be so spellbinding as a play whose director shrugs off literalism and chooses instead to wave the wand of imagination. That's what happens in the production of "The Tempest" currently being presented by Boston's Actors' Shakespeare Project, in which Patrick Swanson takes Shakespeare's tale of a ship run ashore on an enchanted isle and turns it into a 19th-century magic show. I've reviewed many memorable Shakespeare productions in this space, but Mr. Swanson's "Tempest," like the "King Lear" that he mounted for Actors' Shakespeare two seasons ago, ranks very near the top of my list....

13215a.jpgProspero (Alvin Epstein) is decked out in a velvet-lined cape, Ariel (Marianna Bassham) dons the top hat and black tights of a conjuror's assistant, and the play itself becomes a music-hall turn acted on a tiny thrust stage ringed with footlights that look as though they'd been made by Tom Edison himself. The "theater" is an 1889 Cambridge courtroom that has been converted into a performing space. All of Actors' Shakespeare's productions are site-specific, and David R. Gammons, the designer, makes the most of this one, using the second-story gallery as an alternate playing area whose staircase allows for grand entrances and exits. Eric McDonald performs his incidental music in full view of the audience, rattling a thunder sheet and tootling on a slide whistle with the flair of an old-time radio sound-effects man.

Mr. Epstein, who turns 83 in May, played Lear to awesomely eloquent effect for Actors' Shakespeare in 2005. Now he speaks the lines of Prospero, Shakespeare's other old-age star turn, with a fullness of understanding to which no actor can aspire until he reaches the time of life when (as Prospero puts it) "every third thought shall be my grave."...

I've never seen a worse play by a better author than Caryl Churchill's "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" That Ms. Churchill should make so embarrassing an impression in a mere 45 minutes is further proof that politics can make artists stupid, for this pathetic little playlet is nothing more than a political cartoon, one whose draftsmanship is as crude as its underlying premise.

The lights go up on Sam (Scott Cohen), a handsome homosexual who has seduced Guy (Samuel West), a married man with children, and persuaded him to abandon his family and job. Within a half-minute or so, we figure out that Guy is England, Sam is the U.S. (duh, get it?) and the abandoned wife and kids are the European community. The rest of "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" consists of a lovers' quarrel conducted in unpunctuated sentence fragments: "so much fun in my life...being powerful and being on the side of good is...God must have so much fun...win win win." Needless to say, the point of these coy exchanges is that the American government bears sole responsibility for all the evil in the modern world...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted March 21, 2008 12:00 AM

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