Go on and ask me what I was doing last weekend; never mind, I’ll go ahead and tell you. My friend Gary and I visited a couple of good friends in rural western Massachusetts, enjoying a weekend out of the city, and- because our friends live close to a charming little New England town called Lenox, home to an excellent Classical Theater organization called Shakespeare & Company- best of all, we watched the esteemed actress Olympia Dukakis perform Prospera in The Tempest.
“Oh Brave New World, that has such Shakespearean Interpretation in it!” There is an exciting innovation in Shakespearean Gender-Performance going-on- so recent that to my certain knowledge, only three actresses have thus far played the “Wizardress” Role of Prospera, most famously, Helen Mirren in Julie Taymor’s 2010 movie. While obviously nothing changes dramatically or overtly if “Prospero the Wizard” is cast as “Prospera the Wizardress”- the nuances of the show become fascinatingly different when seen from a female perspective as opposed to a male. Probably the single most significant innovation in Shakespeare for at least the last fifty years (opening a whole new role to actresses), one can only imagine with eagerness the roster of notable Prosperas to come.
The basic unfairness of Prospera’s situation, betrayed and deposed by a group of male conspirators, is magnified by presenting Prospera as a woman; her concern as a parent for her daughter Miranda’s safety is intensified if Prospera is Miranda’s mother. The basic excitement remains, however, at watching a great actor perform the most famous Magick-Using role in theater history. To start, Ms. Dukakis has fantastic vocal skills as an actress, able to project varieties of expression through the delivery of her lines and her emphasis of words; her stage presence is always commanding (even posed on an over-looking rafter, monitoring scenes below, she dominated through the force of her being). The opening was staged a bit differently than is general, presumably to pull Ms. Dukakis onstage the faster. While the Storm-at-Sea scene was cut, with the actors pantomiming the ship’s distress- the monster Caliban enters, pulling a large block behind him. Seated on the block, her back initially towards the audience, was Ms. Dukakis, weaving her Magickal Staff in the air to generate the eponymous “tempest.”
I’m not sure how “Method” Ms. Dukakis might be, but she seems to form relationships with her props that propel her into a heightened state; her Prospera struck me as the most believable I have seen, in depicting a Magick-User, with a Magick-Wielder’s relationship to her Magickal Tools, and a sense of causing change in the Reality of Circumstance. When satisfied that the “tempest” was proceeding as she wished- Ms. Dukakis “grounded” her Energies with a sharp thrust of her Staff to the ground, in a definite and deliberate move that thrills me as I recall it.
The overwhelming emotional mood of Ms. Dukakis’ Prospera, I would describe as a great, sustained rage- balanced with an enormous, encompassing sorrow. However- roughly two-thirds of the way in, the Note of Forgiveness began to enter Ms. Dukakis’ repertoire. For instance- many actors will take their cue for the Great Speech “Ye Elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves” (Act V, scene i, derived from Medea’s speech in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) from the images of violence that it conveys (describing the Magick-User conjuring earthquakes and “calling forth the mutinous winds,” setting “roaring war ‘betwixt the green sea and the azur’d vault [the sea and the sky]“; but Ms. Dukakis delivered the speech almost as one of benediction, seated simply upon her prop of a wooden block, conjuring the speech with her words and small gestures of her hands. The “rough magic” described in the speech, this Prospera has already “abjured” in her mind.
The transformative power of Love and Forgiveness is what came through most clearly in Ms. Dukakis’s confrontation of, then reconciliation with, her old enemies, in one case embracing an old, dear friend with such joy at reunion that I remember the emotional strength of the moment now (one of Ms. Dukakis’ great gifts as an actress is to summon such emotion within her, she can transport her audience through her emotional power). The last moment of the show was the most potent in terms of peaceful reconciliation, as Prospera bid farewell to her two Magickal servants, Caliban and Ariel: “Then to the Elements, be free! And fare thee well!” (Act V, scene i, line 317) It was here that the show ended.
Any good Shakespearean production will leave you with one searing memory; this for me, was the Wedding Masque (the Handfasting Ceremony, ’cause it’s a Wedding Ceremony, that is a Pagan Handfasting, performed by two Goddesses in a small theatrical piece-within-a-piece called a “Masque”). During the only scene in Act IV (Act IV, scene i), Prospera summons Spirits in the Guise of Goddesses (I figure that she basically summons Goddesses) to bless her daughter Miranda’s Handfasting to Prince Ferdinand (it is a totally Pagan Ceremony, so it must count more as a Pagan Handfasting than as any sort of non-Pagan marriage). This production’s artful use of Spirits (see more below) was wonderfully employed, as the Spirits emerged as the Goddess Iris, leading forth the Goddesses Juno and Ceres. In as excellently staged a performance of the scene as I have seen, the Goddesses sing Their Blessings upon the happy couple- while Prospera (alight with joy) places wreathes upon their heads (signifying their Sacred Union as Wife and Husband). Still bursting with happiness, Ms. Dukakis’ Prospera moves about the stage in her joy, finally clapping her hands and encouraging the audience to clap their hands as well.
When all are clapping for the gleaming joy of this young couple’s union- Prospera goes to place the crowns that have been brought her, upon the newly-Handfasted couple’s heads. However- when she goes to place a crown upon her daughter Miranda’s head- she stops suddenly, transfixed. You can see that the crown registers the cares and worries that lie upon a monarch’s head, in mistrust and treason- lessons that Prospera herself has learned to great distress. The sight of the crown has an effect upon her: she carries it away from Miranda, almost transfixed with fury upon it. Then of a sudden- she hurls it away from her.
To my mind, the note of Forgiveness entered Ms. Dukakis’ performance at this point, as she delivered the Most-Famous Speech “Our revels are now ended” as graceful apology for this emotional display- brought on by her traumatic memories as a crowned head of a Mediterranean state.
Much as I love Helen Mirren (and I suspect this is because of that process of “living” a theatrical performance for many weeks): I did feel that Ms. Dukakis presented more powerfully emotional depths to the part of Prospera (now encompassing three actresses, including the first, Vanessa Redgrave, whom I did not see, to my great sorrow).
The Magickal Elements of the show were more in evidence in this production than any that I can remember. Never mind the exceptionally personal relationship that seemed to be going on between Ms. Dukakis and any of Prospera’s Magickal Devices: I noted that the Spirits Whom Prospera commanded, were Four in number, and costumed in Red, Green, Yellow, and Blue- that is, corresponding to the Elements of the Four Directions. (This was so notable that my Neo-Pagan Witch Friend Gary remarked later on how disconcerting he found it, to not see the Four Colors in absolute alignment ie., Yellow [East]; Red [South]; Blue [West]; Green [North]. I was like, the director wants to mix the bright colors [Red and Yellow] with Blue and Green. Gary said he could see the point, but it still bothered him.)
Olympia Dukakis in The Tempest becomes fascinating not merely for its own performance’s right- but for the fact that she has furnished Starhawk with a letter of interest in playing Maya, in the push to realize Ms. Starhawk’s book The Fifth Sacred Thing made into a movie (according to reporting from The Wild Hunt). It becomes clear that Ms. Dukakis possesses in spades the necessary “actor’s subtext” to play Maya: now that she has so mastered the role of Prospera.