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Open: 09/16/10- Close: 09/19/10 The Tempest
Reviewed for By: Ashley Griffin

They bit me. They actually, literally bit me.

There’s a very fine line between a show that’s provocative, and dangerously inappropriate. I have a BFA from NYU’s Tisch department of drama. I’ve experienced just about every experimental idea you can throw at me.  Sneaking up on the audience. Touching them. Yelling in their ear. You name it.  

However, one of the sacred things about theater is the unspoken bond of trust between the audience and the actors. The actors expect the audience to remain spectators, not get up on stage and mess with the action. Likewise, the audience places an immense amount of trust in the actor’s hands. The actors have the power to do pretty much anything they want to the audience, but it’s with the understanding that the audience will always be safe, that the actors are in control. This is why, for example at adult Haunted Houses (such as NYC’s Blood Manor) the actors are not allowed to touch a patron under any circumstances. That crazed murderer may be chasing you down a dark hall with a chainsaw – inspiring the fear and terror the attraction is aiming for, and you paid to experience, but when push comes to shove that chainsaw wielder will never actually touch you in any way shape or form. You are experiencing fear in a safe environment. That is the unspoken contract between the actors and the audience.

A good rule of thumb is: as an actor, if it's something that you would not do to another actor onstage without rehearsing it ahead of time DON’T DO IT TO THE AUDIENCE. The cast of the C.A.G.E Theatre Company’s “The Tempest” is very lucky that I am a theater professional. Otherwise, when the actor playing Caliban came into the audience, sat on my lap, and proceeded to bite, yes bite my neck, and then later spit on me and my guest, I would have punched him in the face and walked out of the theater. They are lucky that I am an actor and am able to just “go along with it.” They are not lucky however that I happened to be the critic reviewing the show.

To be fair, there was no real piercing of my neck with teeth. But had I been anyone not apt to stay relaxed with a stranger gripping my neck with his mouth, there could have been, and it could have turned into a legitimately dangerous situation, both for myself and the actor.

For those of you unfamiliar with this classic Shakespeare play, "The Tempest" tells the story of Prospero - the former Duke of Milan who after his Dukedom was usurped escaped with his daughter Miranda to a strange and magical island. Years later when he discovers his enemies sailing nearby he summons all his magical arts and, with the help of the fairy-like spirit Ariel rights the wrongs that were done to him.

Now I’m all for experimental theater. Peter Brook, Grotowsky, Theater of Cruelty bring it on! But this production of “The Tempest” wasn’t experimental. It wasn’t really anything, because it hadn’t been thought out. There were no cohesive choices. It wasn’t doing anything. The inappropriate biting actually serves as a perfect metaphor for what doesn’t work about this production: namely, that the actors are in no way shape or form in control of the show. Before when I mentioned the unspoken rule that the audience is safe in the actor’s hands, well, that doesn’t just mean physical safety. It also means trusting the actors (as well as director, designers, etc.) to take you on a journey, to guide you, to put yourself in their hands. With the exception of Kenneth Scott Thompson in the minor, but hysterical role of Stephano, no one on the stage had any control whatsoever. From the literal lack of a set to the fact that I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying it felt as if a director who hadn’t ever really read the play found eleven random people, and asked if they wanted have a go onstage. The C.A.G.E Theatre Company claims that part of their mission is to “give new looks and concepts to texts by modifying costuming, sets, and props, but without changing the text or plot in any way.” There seems to be a dichotomy as there were no sets (no scenic designer is even credited), awkward props: for example, the “heavy logs” Antonio is meant to be laboriously carrying were represented by a couple of bamboo sticks so light they literally kept falling out of Antonio’s hands – given the lack of set an “Our Town” approach where props were mimed would have been lovely. It certainly would have been more cohesive and interesting than what was presented. And the costumes looked like they were found at the local high school, at least the items that weren’t already in someone’s closet.

This was a tragedy as it’s very difficult for any production of a Shakespeare play to truly feel like a bad evening at the theater. Heck, someone could walk out onstage and just read the play and I’d feel like I got my moneys worth. But in a production where I couldn’t understand the words, the creative choices felt arbitrary (the background music was taken from the “Little Mermaid” (ok, I get it, nautical theme), “Pirates of the Caribbean” (ok, still nautical), and “The Lion King” (?????) soundtracks), and I was considering leaving for reasons of personal safety, the evening took on a negative air. Molly Gilman’s (Ariel) singing and recorder playing were a lovely ethereal presence – that, plus Kenneth Scott Thompson’s performance (of which I could understand not only the sounds, but meaning behind every word) were the bright points in the evening. There was one lovely example of a good actor doing his best with poor direction when at the end of the play  Danny Sauls (Antonio) stood between the two characters he had spent the entire play trying to kill while holding his sword in his hand. His expression of confusion at being able to kill them so easily, and yet, for some reason not being allowed to was brilliant. 

It’s disappointing when a production takes its responsibility as a work of art (whether a good or bad one) so lightly. I wonder what the cast would have done if I had walked on stage and grabbed, or sat on one of them (which was also done to me.) Would they have felt their safety had been violated? Absolutely. When we go to the theater we are putting our comfort on the line to be moved, and be changed by a communal experience. The actors and creative team have a responsibility to the audience, and they need to take that responsibility to heart.  

Looking Glass Theatre : 422 W 57th St