BWW Review: TEMPEST RECONFIGURED at Fort Point Theatre Channel
In two recent reviews of The Magic Flute and Fences, I have bemoaned Boston theatres' lack of accommodation made for the marginalized communities they attempt to serve. In sharp contrast,Tempest Reconfigured, a project produced by Fort Point Theatre Channel, takes the storyline of Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest and centers the perspectives of richly disparate voices from Boston's artistic communities. Producer Marc S. Miller explains that the idea behind the project was to invite community-based arts groups to respond to, reinterpret, reinvent, subvert, and analyze the themes from Shakespeare's text. The result is a communal evening, part performance, part ritual, that transforms Boston Public Library's stoically academic Rabb Hall into a place of wonder, beauty, anguish, and catharsis, not unlike the fictional island which Prospero and his daughter Miranda inhabit in the play.
Though each performance is produced by a separate group, a few recurring themes tie the pieces together in an ethos of reclamation and advocacy. First, and most abundantly, one is struck by how many of the directors, playwrights, composers, and devisers choose to insert themselves into their pieces, not as the Prospero figure long thought to be a stand-in for Shakespeare himself, but as Caliban or his mother Sycorax, the native inhabitants of the island Prospero has claimed. It speaks volumes that the artists who drive this project connect more with the oppressed than with the oppressor (once on the island, Prospero uses his magic to enslave Caliban) and they are more interested in exploring the Algerian narratives from the play than those of the Italian characters. Additionally, there is an exploration of how Prospero's ability to control the weather aligns with contemporary concerns over a climate crisis and the nonchalance those in power seem to have toward the situation. Finally, many of the groups have illuminated Miranda's desires to leave the patriarchal structures her father has laid out for her on their island.
Luminarium Dance Company begins the evening in a dance choreographed and lighting designed by their co-founder, Kim Holman. The piece takes full advantage of Holman's dual role, beginning with a purple glow from two shin busters casting huge shadows of two concealed dancers on the walls of the space. At first, what seems to be a forgivable mistake is revealed to be the crux of the piece; shadows of bodies intertwined in rakish angles flicker on the walls. The effect is inventive, but the choreography is generic and lacks any sense of narrative.
Next, Fort Point Theatre Channel presents a contemporary exploration of Caliban, Sycorax, and Miranda called Meet Me on the Brink written by Letta Neely, who also plays Sycorax. Neely's script is self-aware in its absurdity, beginning with a phone call from Caliban to his mother, but later acquiesces into mournful poetry over the state of our natural world. A strikingly resonant image is the tangle of plastic debris which has trapped Caliban instead of the enchantments Shakespeare wrote, recalling images of plastic harming our real world marine life. Additionally, Caliban alludes to his cousins in Detroit and Standing Rock, solidifying his place as a symbol of oppressed and colonized people in our world. Director Christine Noah handles the verse with inextricable staging; the actors roam about, improvise dances, and wave their arms in movements that simply do not service the piece. The whole time, Mitchel K Ahern bangs on an instrument of his own invention and creation, but the music, unlike the ethereal sounds called for in Shakespeare's script, is messy and likewise distracting. The use of blue and white fabric to represent the movement of water (a trope relied on many times throughout the evening) does not evoke a sense of crashing waves as much as it suggests a middle school play.
The third performance is well-placed as the centerpiece to the evening. Roslindale Love Canal: A True Story of Survival perfectly epitomizes the goal of the evening. Presented by the Artists' Theatre of Boston, multi-talented artist Ashley-Rose tells the true story of the preventable 1996 Love Canal burst that flooded Boston's neighborhoods of Roslindale and Archdale (both poor communities with predominantly residents of color) with several feet of raw sewage. The play explores how a flood ravages a community and those in power selfishly look away instead of giving aid. Ashley-Rose, a real life survivor of this environmental and human rights travesty, has written an impactful piece in which she wittily appears as her own mother, a no-nonsense Haitian immigrant, and has also directed. Additionally, crouching behind a backdrop, she provides sound effects of ringing telephones and cats begging to be brought inside (eat your heart out, Orson Welles). Kerline Desir is resolutely strong in her performance as a young Ashley-Rose, and provides the first dynamically theatrical moment of the evening when she turns to the audience, revealing that her clothing and body are covered in smears of raw sewage. Christina Bynoe is admirable as Ms. Cynthia, a community space organizer who provides shelter to many immediately after the floods. The piece ends with Ashley-Rose delivering a fiercely driven spoken word poem alongside Desir as her younger self.
"Black and brown babies forced to drink black and brown water from their faucets."
Offering an unflinching look at the realities for too many in the United States, the poem is accompanied by singer Ericka Florence, who pours out a lamenting rendition of 'Wade in the Water' which begins with great reserve, but blossoms into a sound of hope for resilience. At the end of the evening, I was moved to inquire at the talk-back what the next steps were for Ashley-Rose's piece. She announced that she had been approached by a prominent Boston director about developing a full production based on her story and hopes that, if the piece comes to fruition, she will be able to honor many more heroes who did what they could for their communities. While the script needs refining and the eyes of a competent dramaturge, I hope that it is undertaken, as this is a story that more of Boston needs to hear. I also hope that any iteration of this story incorporates Ashley-Rose as much as possible, as her instincts as a performer, passion for her community, and overall air of composure are elements that add validity to her narrative.
As the audience sat in a mixture of sadness and anger following Artists' Theatre of Boston's presentation, Origination Cultural Arts Center entered just in time to turn the air to a mood of mutual jubilation. The group presented three African-inspired contemporary dances choreographed by Fajr Harris and Britney Wilkerson. Each explored a different pairing of characters from The Tempest. First, Miranda and her lover Ferdinand seemed to court each other, then Prospero lead his spirit servant, Ariel, through a sequence of steps. Finally, Talib Said-Dibinga and Malik Mitchell proceeded to playfully challenge each other, one with a daffy grin glued to his face, the other somberly concentrated, as Prospero and his new son-in-law, Ferdinand.
The finale was wisely selected. After an incomprehensible length of dialogue, the Petrichor Performance Collective arrives within the medium they know best. J Cottle is a self-written Caliban, in an imagined scenario where Caliban conjures up the titular storm in an attempt to rid his island of mortals. Cottle's falsetto easily riffs through the original pop ballad in which the storm is conjured. For the first time in the evening, we see an interpretation of a storm, and it is superbly staged. The group sings in tight harmonies as they rigidly wave about a blue silk. Thus, the evening is ended on just the right note.
Any company planning to stage The Tempest would do well to look into the works generated by this collective of artists. In fact, a wonderful production could be staged with Petrichor Performance Collective as the storm, Origination as a dancing troupe of spirits on the island, effects dreamed up by Luminarium, interpolated poetry by Letta Neely, and a turn by Ashley-Rose as a charismatic Prospero. Others could take note on how a conventionally white narrative can be authentically and voluntarily reclaimed by members of many different communities.
Though Tempest Reconfigured has ended its run, check out Fort Point's next projects here.