Crystal Pite Creates the Perfect Storm

Written by Kristen Legg
Eric Beauchesne and Cindy Salgado in The Tempest Replica
Photo by Jorg Baumann
On October 26, 2012, one of the most anticipated visiting tours of the season made good at On the Boards. Choreographer Crystal Pite and her company, Kidd Pivot, stopped in mid-week for three sold out performances of The Tempest Replica, an evening-length work based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. For a Cliff Notes version of the story (as well as insider information and an interview with Pite) download the digital program here: http://www.ontheboards.org/performances/tempest-replica.

There are three things to know about The Tempest Replica: 1) It may be the most visually stunning work ever, 2) While very narrative, it is by no means a blow-by-blow retelling of the play, and 3) There’s something rotten in the state of it.

1) Vision. As the audience enters the space, Prospero, played by Eric Beauchesne, is already on stage, creating paper sailboats and placing them around himself with great attention. A piece of sheer fabric serves as his backdrop. The lights dim; Prospero calls for Ariel (Sandra Marin Garcia), and bids her to summon a tempest to bring his enemies to his island. He places one of his boats in Ariel’s hand where it lists to a fro until she shoves it in her mouth. The lights change and the fabric blows about in the storm, images of rain projected on it. This in itself was beautiful and could be viewed for hours. Behind the fabric, however, a whole other work of art is playing out. The dancers dive and roll across the stage, pulling and grabbing at one another, as if in the midst of a terrible storm. With a loud crash and a flash of a strobe, the fabric drops, the clouds part, and calm is restored. All of this takes place in the first 15 minutes, and is by no means the only eye-candy in the work. Pite and her collaborators (Owen Belton, composer; Robert Sondergaard, lights; and Nancy Bryant, costumes, to name a few) use projections on the backdrop and on paper held by dancers, simple set piece, and Indonesian puppet show-style shadows to enhance this already well-crafted work. The choreography is unique, diverse, and seems to be planned down to the smallest detail. Of note is the partnering between Marin Garcia and Beacuesne. “Seamless” has been used to describe partnering sequences before, but never has it been so true. Without the use of hands, Beacuesne rolls his partner up and down his body, suddenly lifting her over head and lowering her down like a falling leaf. There are also spectacular duets between Beacuesne and Bryan Arias who played the monster Caliban, and Cindy Salgado and Jermaine Maurice Spivey (Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, and her love interest, Prince Ferdinand).

2) Narrative. Pite does indeed tell the story of The Tempest. In fact, throughout the first half of the work, Act and Scene numbers and short descriptions are projected onto the set. If this were to continue through the whole work, it would be too much. But Pite knows just how much information to give the viewers before letting them start to draw their own conclusions and read into the work. Just like Shakespearean English, there are subtleties to the language Pite uses, twists and turns that make a simple seeming gesture mean so much more.

3) Shortcoming? What’s wrong with The Tempest Replica is quite hard to pinpoint, because it’s all so right. The short answer is: Prospero is less likeable by the end of the piece than he was at the beginning. In the first half, all the characters (except Prospero) are dressed in all white, heads and faces covered by Pite’s signature masks. The audience watches the story unfold with these non-human characters. Prospero magically directs his players in a clean, unadulterated telling of family ties, revenge, love, and enslavement. There’s little malice. Even Caliban’s hatred of his master is depicted in a humorous manner. It’s beautiful, but disconnected. Prospero is in charge, and his demeaning, vengeful tendencies are hidden behind this theatrical shroud of white purity. Once the story is told, a doorbell rings and all the characters enter, as if for a party, now brightly colored and unmasked. They retell the story—movements that were once robotic and shape-driven are suddenly filled with humanity and luxury. Things that seemed innocent become pained, almost morbid. Nowhere is this more noticeable than when Miranda sees the shipwreck offshore. While in white, her movements are robotic, dictated and directed by her father. When she repeats the choreography later, each move—still stiff—has lost all sign of automaton. She reaches and sobs audibly, making Prospero’s actions seem more cruel than magical. Where at first it appeared Prospero was helping his daughter walk toward the shipwrecked Prince, on second viewing it is clear he is struggling to let her go. Youth is lost. In her second duet with Prospero, the fairy is visibly struggling with the violent acts she has committed. Her heart flutters and her broken wing flaps like a poisoned Tinkerbell. When Prospero finally releases her, Ariel’s highheels can be heard fleeing as quickly as possible, not looking back. His later interactions with Caliban take on a domineering quality, and the horrible future alone that the monster must now face, with language and lust and no one to share it with, becomes apparent. Prospero is a bitter, broken man, not the carefree sorcerer he seemed to be. As the work comes to a close, the white figures return to visit the lonely old man, but this time they are in charge. They mimic and influence his movement, ultimately leaving him in the same prone position Miranda was found when she is first introduced, a lifeless doll ready to be manipulated.