Monday, September 9, 2013

Tempest in a Teapot

l797 Engraving of Act I, Scene I, The Tempest by George Romney
All that was missing from the 200 member cast of the Public Theater’s just completed three day run of The Tempest, at the Delacorte, was the old Partisan Review crowd, a group of hyper critical Upper West Side Trotskyite intellectuals. Otherwise the current version of Shakespeare in modern dress, directed by Lear deBessonet with music and lyrics by Todd Almond as the inauguration of Public Works, “The Public’s community-based initiative,” included taiko drummers, a gospel choir, hip hop dancers, youthful ballet dancers, cab drivers and Mexican Dancers. Amongst the groups represented were the Fortune society (which supports “reentry from prison”), the Children’s Aid Society, Domestic Workers United and the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance. The current Tempest is the Public’s famed Two Gentlemen of Verona in extremis. But in what light would those old Partisan Review crowd members see this endeavor? Clearly the production is exuberant and full of delightfully choreographed moments such as the one in which Caliban (Carson Elrod), Stephano (Jacob Ming-Trent) and Trinculo (Jeff Hiller) are surrounded by nimble dancers from Ballet Tech “which seeks out talented New York City public school students.” And some of the music has the catchiness of Two Gentlemen, though the production’s admirable Prospero (Norm Lewis) was hampered by a number of tracks aimed at the Light FM audience. The real question is the democratization of art. Yes Public Work’s Tempest makes Shakespeare more accessible both to its performers (reaching out as it does to a larger swathe of talent) and to audiences who aren’t burdened with a surfeit of lines they can’t understand (it’s nice that “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” and “oh brave new world that has such people in it” both made the cut), but is this a reliable premise on which to base a new initiative by a major arts organization which is the recipient of public funding? The French psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni wrote a book called Prospero and Caliban:The Psychology of Colonization. The delightful moments of Public Work’s Tempest, unfortunately are overshadowed by a different kind of colonization, by the triumph of what Dwight Macdonald another famous member of the Partisan Review crowd defined as “middlebrow” culture

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