The Hand-Made ‘Tempest’
Target Margin Theater, the celebrated downtown company, presents Shakespeare’s late comedy, The Tempest for its twentieth season. The production focuses its energies on exposing its illusion-making apparatuses to such an extent that the creaks and cranks of its pulleys and the nonchalant all-female run crew become the focal point of the play. When Prospero declares “I abjure this rough magic” in the final act, Shakespeare’s poetry is imbued with an unexpected shade of meaning because theater itself is shown as a failed contrivance bereft of illusory magic.
As the audience find their seats the entire stage is open and we can see HERE Theater’s back wall where actors chit chat and prepare for their performance. From these first moments the tone of Target Margin’s Tempest is established. There is no attempt to conceal the fact that: this is a performance, the actors are pretending, and the stage is anything but a stage. This only heightens the knowing playfulness already present in a text rife with double meanings, direct addresses, and asides. The effect is not so much a Brechtian break from emotional identification, but more of a feeling of being let in on the joke.
Director David Herskovits establishes a well-defined performance style for his actors reminiscent of a bygone era of stage conventions with extended arms, deliberate movement and heightened speech. When Prospero, played with precision by the affable Steven Rattazzi, retreats to his room to tell his daughter Miranda, the sensitive and slight Clare Barron, about her bizarre origins, the stage transforms by what seems to be a plank of wood at a time, into a candle lit interior above which the word “Remember” is painted. The scenic change, the flickering luminescence and the actors’ strange gestures all work to create a moment of rare theatrical beauty when this spectator is painfully aware of the transitory nature of the sight before her eyes, a delicate and fleeting vision soon to be destroyed by the next installment of time. In this scene, the different design elements come together to convey an aesthetic cohesion that, unfortunately, the production has difficulty in maintaining. Rattazzi and Barron are able to embody the whimsical choreography while remaining fresh and alive. Some of the actors get lost in the movement, and seem to exert more effort maintaining it than delivering their lines.
Clever sound design by Kate Marvin and David Herskovits and ingenious set design by David Birn work laboriously to announce their contribution to the play-making, mostly to comic effect. But, as the evening continues, the insistence on calling attention to the seams starts to distract from the wonder a play like The Tempest can conjure simply with the dazzling display of its language. Even though it is only an illusion, sometimes I want to believe in theater’s magic.