The Bard’s great American play

Portland Shakespeare Project's provocative 'Tempest' explores a new land of conquest and colonization

“We like to think of the old-fashioned American classics as children’s books. Just childishness, on our part.”

These are the first lines in The Spirit of Place, the opening essay of Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence’s brilliant headfirst dive into the soul and cultural compulsions of the invented nation as evidenced in the creations of its early nativist storytellers, and they came to mind once again, for a few reasons, upon seeing Portland Shakespeare Project’s new production of The Tempest.

Kerrigan and Alper as antagonists Caliban and Prospera. Photo: David Kinder

Kerrigan and Alper as antagonists Caliban and Prospera. Photo: David Kinder

First, although The Tempest will never be mistaken for The Comedy of Errors or The Merry Wives of Windsor, its late-period reverie is counterbalanced by a brisk and overt playfulness that PSP’s production captures rollickingly – a childishness, if you will, to go with the familiar magic that so many of Shakespeare’s plays share with fairy tales.

Second, in addition to its undeniable place as a masterwork of the English dramatic literary canon, The Tempest has long struck me as a peculiarly American sort of work, the Shakespearean play that most clearly draws from early seventeenth century European acknowledgment and limited understanding of the so-called “new world.”

Third, Lawrence himself hinted at an almost soul-connection between The Tempest and the makers, or transgressors, of the new land.“Ca Ca Caliban/ Get a new master, be a new man,” he chants in The Spirit of Place, the doorway into a book that relentlessly explores the creation of the American character through the writings of Franklin, Crèvecoeur, Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Dana, Melville, and Whitman. I’m not sure how he missed Twain, whose satiric burlesques so effectively ripped aside the curtain of American “democratic” orthodoxy, but there you go. New masters, or no masters. New men, whatever the cost.

It’s fascinated me for decades that Lawrence, the outsider who saw so clearly inside the American heart, fell back repeatedly for his image of the American spirit on the picture of Caliban, the captive savage on the enchanted island in Shakespeare’s late romance. Writing in the early 1600s, Shakespeare knew by reputation of the goings-on in the New World, where the mythology of the noble savage had already taken root in the wake of Europe’s ruthless conquest and consequent demonizing of the continents’ existing civilizations. No new men, apparently, without the submission of the old. “They came largely to get away – that most simple of motives,” Lawrence wrote of the early colonizers from Europe. “To get away. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves. Away from everything. That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been.”

Then he quotes from The Tempest again: “Henceforth be masterless.”

It doesn’t work, of course, but it’s an abiding fiction. I’ve seen productions of The Tempest more times than I can count, and read it many times, and it’s impossible for me to view it through any but American eyes. It seems to me almost an American ur-story: the magical undiscovered isle, hidden from known civilization; the defining presence of a wilderness; the native incumbents with their own complex histories and magics that are no match for the rigors of the colonizers; the longing, in what might be a paradise, for the known quantities of the continent left behind. It seems unlikely to me that an American observing this play with a perceptive eye can do so without some sympathy for the character of Caliban, who after all was the natural inheritor of the island and who proceeds through the play under his own rough logic, a kind of Celt in defiance of the Roman invasion. Slave he was, usurped from his natural destiny.

Dinkowitz as the drunk who would be king, with Kerrigan as Caliban. Photo: David Kinder

Dinkowitz as the drunk who would be king, with Kerrigan as Caliban. Photo: David Kinder

And yet, what of the usurper, this Prospero – or Prospera, in the case of Portland Shakespeare Project’s production, in which the vigorously spirited Linda Alper plays the central role? It’s tough not to have sympathy here, too, for she’s a character of obvious strength and good purpose, usurped in her turn from her own natural position and sent out to die or disappear into the unknown. By force or choice, the old magician arrives with a colonizer’s frame of mind – and wealthy or indigent, colonizers arrive freighted with emotional and intellectual baggage. Prospera is a political refugee – “give us your tired, your poor” – but also, once she gets to the island, a speculator, an expansionist, an “improver,” preferring the values of the land she left behind to the ones already in place in her adopted home.

There are echoes of Lear in Prospero, who neglected his duties as a political leader in order to pursue his private pleasures as a philosopher and should not, therefore, have been surprised when he was kicked all the way out the door: no place for philosopher-kings, in new worlds or old. Unlike Lear, who paid with his sight and life, Prospero/Prospera turns back the clock to repair the past, and, in a moment that must have been a delight for Caliban and would have been a wish-fulfillment for the original inhabitants of the Americas, abandons the island for a triumphant, if partly regretful, return home. It’s an American story, factual or not.

Matthew Kerrigan, the Caliban in director Michael Mendelson’s PSP production, argues his case well. Churlish, yes. Erratic, definitely. Resentful and defiant and seemingly caught halfway between human and beast; physically alert and comfortably squatting on his haunches, prepared to pounce – yet also aware that in a deep and terrible way, he’s been done wrong. He’s committed to a rough sense of justice and recompense. History is overrun with conquerors and the conquered, and it never does seem to even out.

And, yes, Caliban’s funny, in a taunting sort of way. Kerrigan’s stumbling comedy is part of a bubbling theme carried out most rambunctiously by Sam Dinkowitz and Nathan Dunkin as the drunken stumblebum would-be kings Stephano and Trinculo, and more slyly by the likes of Adrienne Flagg as an erotically charged Antonia, Prospera’s sister and usurper of her throne, and David Bodin as the sunny-spirited, verbally profligate old counselor Gonzalo, a sort of Polonius who’s rewarded instead of bumped off for his volubility. Mike Dunay is a bustling breeze of geniality as Ariel, the able island sprite. And the nicely matched Susannah Jones and Joshua Weinstein, as the poleaxed young lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand, make hay (without rolling in it) of the possibilities for light comedy in the disorientations of sudden infatuation.

But the production’s comic heart beats most steadily and definingly in Alper’s breast, and it is more a comedy of humor than of shtick. Alper’s Prospera is no shrinking philosopher, slumping reflectively and monotonously toward her grave. She can be waspish, impatient, temperamental, angry, imperious, and very soberly sad – an illuminated map of the caged yet supremely confident managerial soul. Her moods are both calculated and erratic, sweeping across the play like a rearranging wind. Prospera is power. Yet everything Alper does is delivered from a deep well of storytelling humor, an optimism, perhaps, or maybe love: a belief in the essential goodness of the fable being told. Alper and Tempest director Mendelson created a rare sympatico together as actors in Artists Rep’s spring production of The Quality of Life, and that spirit seems to have carried over to their collaboration here. Alper has the chops: a longtime veteran of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she’s fully at ease with the language and meanings of the play, and makes the matter of gender-switching utterly unimportant, although it brings some intriguing nuances to the interpretation. But beyond her technical skills, it’s her spirit that hovers like a healing and benevolent spell over the show.

Jones and Weinstein as Miranda and Ferdinand: hello young lovers, wherever you are. Photo: David Kinder

Jones and Weinstein as Miranda and Ferdinand: hello young lovers, wherever you are. Photo: David Kinder

Not that everything’s wrapped up neatly, and thank goodness for that. Life is a moving shuffle of gains and losses; we simultaneously destroy and rebuild. The Tempest is a fantasy that seems to resolve itself but in fact leaves jagged edges, a “children’s story” with deeply adult issues and an acknowledgement of the irresolvable – in Freud’s words, a sense of both civilization and its discontents. Imagine how radically such open-endedness must have struck the audiences of its time. Think of how shocking it can still seem.

“It is hard to hear a new voice, as hard as it is to listen to an unknown language. We just don’t listen,” Lawrence wrote in The Spirit of Place. Imagine Caliban learning the language, if not the nuances, of Renaissance England. Imagine Prospera and Miranda stumbling over the strange island communications of Caliban and Ariel and the sprites. Crucial meanings must have been lost in the translations. Devastating mistakes must have been made. How much must even happy endings have been clouded by the probability of consequences yet to come.

How very Shakespearean. How very American. No wonder the lightning cracked. No wonder the winds blew. No wonder Portland Shakespeare Project’s Tempest roars in and out, as the play has done for four centuries and counting, with a satisfying storm of storytelling and a lasting residue of unanswered questions.

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The Tempest continues through August 3 at Portland Shakespeare Project, in residence at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Holly Johnson’s review of PSP’s production for The Oregonian is here.

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