Imagine that William Shakespeare's masterpiece,"The Tempest," contained no tropical island, no shipwreck, no storm, no living, breathing Miranda. A sly old sorcerer, a prototypical Wizard of Oz, just made 'em all up from his big book of grand illusions. Prospero spins a lot of illusions in traditional productions of this late Shakespearean drama; so there's no earthly reason he should not be inventing the whole shebang. A lonely, weakened old man has to stay in control of his own story; otherwise the story can take control of him.
There are a Caliban and an Ariel in "The Feast: An Intimate Tempest," the admirably original and conceptually fascinating new production at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, working in collaboration with Redmoon, but not in the usual, theatrical sense. They're really just a pair of frightened captives who wear their famously colorful and fantastical characters like masks, part of someone else's reality.
Mostly, they just want to be themselves and to live their lives anyplace but here. But it is their lot, as it is for so many of us, to re-enact their master's narrative bidding. And so it goes at a large, Beckettian (or maybe Athol Fugard-ian) table, where a trio of interdependent souls answer the call of Prospero's bell and weave a visually remarkable tale involving a tropical island, a shipwreck, a storm and the puppet head of a floating Miranda, an implied presence so powerful that you'd swear at times that you are watching four actors, not the trio of John Judd, Adrian Danzig and Samuel Taylor.
The visuals in "The Feast," which lasts just 80 minutes, are nothing short of incredible: Jesse Mooney Bullock's puppets are magnificently empathetic creations, much fuller than most puppets and so full of character, nuance and sadness that I constantly found myself staring into their eyes. Frank Maugeri's huge table is also a sight to behold — it's composed of a series of wooden slats, seemingly controlled by Prospero, from within which elements of the story rise up, like a giant, macabre, dangerous, three-dimensional pop-up book for adults. When Prospero pulls a lever, you get waves, objects, nightmares. "The Feast" is billed as a collision between actors and objects, and collide they do throughout the piece, often with dazzling results.
Much about this feast for the eyes is simply wonderful. And this is precisely the kind of textual experimentation that Chicago Shakespeare Theater should be supporting. So good for the producer, Rick Boynton. But when it comes to food for the ear and heart, both of which must always be fed in the theater, problems emerge in what feels like a visual conception that has not yet found either the right way through the text, or a fully satisfying emotional core.
The problems with the storytelling that the co-director and adapter, Jessica Thebus, has yet to solve are myriad. They range from simple matters of clarity — unless you have a deep knowledge of this play, I fear you might be lost in several sections, which strikes me as unnecessarily exclusionary. Often, the textual cuttings (the language almost all comes from the play) aren't chosen with enough care to tell the story without resorting to cartoon. For broad swaths of the action, Taylor conducts artificial conversations between two puppets, one on each hand. Taylor is a skilled performer and they're very cool puppets — capable of flipping backward and emerging with a whole new expression — but these sections are, frankly, deadly in the way they compromise the truth of the piece and suck the interactive energy out of the show. Sure, we're watching a performance within a performance. But why do we need such artificiality when these puppets have so much veracity?
But the most problematic aspect of the piece involves Prospero's emotional journey. We are intended, I think, to see Prospero finally let go of the need for an illusion for which others must pay a price and find himself finally able to take up his rightful place in life's circle as a generous elder spirit. Such is the soul of the play. But this particular version fails to clearly show us why he arrives at that revelation — there just is not enough of Prospero in the piece for that to work. Judd is, of course, a formidable actor. But he stabs at his guy here with a jolting rhythm — rather like a great prizefighter throwing strong right hooks at one of Shakespeare's most complicated creations — when we want to feel him knock to the floor the entire body and soul of the slippery dude, right down to his magical socks. Judd has much less than usual with which to work, and many of his individual moments are arresting. But a character such as this needs a defined trajectory you can feel; otherwise we don't care about him. Even an intimate feast should reveal the chef.
Some of that also applies to Danzig and Taylor, who pull off a variety of energetic flourishes and formative amazements but aren't always allowed to show enough of their needy hearts. Thebus finds her way much better in the last 10 minutes or so, when Judd feels more rooted and you start to see what this piece really could be with more work, more willingness to tear away those more academic defenses and more intelligence to truths and relationships.
You'd think, perhaps, that a short, three-person "Tempest" is easier than the full monty. The reverse is true. The more one explodes the play, the more you have to deal with every aspect of the object of the explosion. And there is no reason that the language of the piece can't be allowed to soar with its usual potency in this kind of conceptual treatment. There is no reason to run from poetry; it only adds to the pleasures of puppets, objects, actors, sorcerers.