Thaddeus Phillips' audacious solo version of Shakespeare's The Tempest is filled with striking insights about the play and about its central character Prospero, the former Milanese duke who for 14 years has been exiled on a Mediterranean island with his young daughter, eagerly awaiting the moment when his old enemies will come within the compass of his magical powers and he can finally wreak his long-contemplated revenge.
As with the solo King Lear that Phillips and his Lucidity Suitcase Theater first produced here in the spring of '95 (which he is currently reviving, in repertory with The Tempest, under the general title Shakespeare's Storms), Phillips plays all the characters, wearing different fragments of costume or ventriloquizing different puppet-like objects that he pulls from a large suitcase, changing the lights with a remote-control in his pocket. This time, the suitcase is a large chest, half-submerged in the middle of a child's wading pool, in and around which Phillips, wearing waders, happily sloshes throughout the performance.
And as with the King Lear, many of the most resonant insights result from the ingenious theatrical devices that Phillips employs to represent the dozen or so characters.
Prospero's daughter Miranda, whom he both protects and then manipulates into a marriage, is a small fashion doll in an evening gown, which Prospero/Phillips cradles, caresses and manipulates; and Ferdinand, the object of her love, is a small framed photograph. The jester Trinculo and the butler Stephano first appear to be painted dollheads at the end of sticks; when Caliban, the uncivilized enslaved native of the island, forms an alliance with them and exultantly dances, mistakenly anticipating his liberation from slavery, we learn that these doll-heads are actually maracas, which Caliban feverishly plays. When Phillips switches back and forth between playing Prospero and playing Prospero's Italian usurpers, he shifts accents, donning and doffing hats and sunglasses, showing us that all of the characters are different aspects of Prospero's own complex social identity (it's not surprising that Phillips chooses to represent the usurper Antonio as Prospero's twin brother).
Most significantly, Prospero's magical assistant Ariel is represented by Prospero's own reflection in a mirror (or, when Ariel appears in various magical guises to the shipwrecked Italians, by Prospero's image through the one-way glass of the mirror frame); and Prospero's other servant, the rapacious Caliban, is Prospero/Phillips' silhouette rear-projected onto the billowing sail-like sheet that Phillips hoists and lowers throughout the performance. All three characters, then, are shown to be embodiments of Prospero, the imagination and the libido of a single troubled psyche.
But perhaps the greatest interpretive insight about the play and the character arises in those moments when we in the audience pull out of the fiction and behold the spectacle of a man in his mid-20s in a tuxedo shirt and hip boots with a slightly crazed look in eyes, sloshing about in a wading pool in the open air on a noisy side street in Old City, Philadelphia, for a little more than an hour, playing with toys and putting on funny voices.
From the moment the play begins (with Prospero telling us the story of his betrayal 14 years before, representing his enemies with his own let-your-fingers-do-the-walking-through-the-Yellow-Pages hands on a pile of old waterlogged books), to the performance's final moments (when Phillips repeatedly hoists and lowers the sheet, raising and lowering the curtain for his own curtain call), Prospero-the-magician is Phillips-the-actor, a man in his mid-20s in a tuxedo shirt and hip boots with a slightly crazed look in his eyes, sloshing about in a wading pool in the open air on a noisy side street in Old City, Philadelphia, for a little more than an hour, playing with toys and putting on funny voices.
And that insight, like the performance itself, is absolutely fascinating.
-- Cary M. Mazer