nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 10, 2005
Rarely, a play captures a historical moment with profound acuity; such a play is Larry Loebell's La Tempestad. Ostensibly inspired by Shakespeare's Tempest, it's actually more of a riff on some of that work's characters and situations, placing Prospero, his daughter, his servants, and some of their guests on Vieques during the fall of 2002 and turning them into archetypal Americans of the Bush Era. It is the turbulence of our times—not the hurricane that beats down on Puerto Rico to set the play in motion—that is Loebell's subject, as he takes a thoughtful, provocative, and surprisingly non-judgmental look at the society and polity in which we live.
The place is Vieques, the island off the coast of Puerto Rico where, in a steady buildup over six decades, the U.S. Navy has been escalating its presence, to the point where military planes fly overhead almost daily and test missions for planned American operations (such as the imminent invasion of Iraq, which will occur five months after the events of this play) threaten to turn this once-peaceful Caribbean outpost into a tinderbox. (In the play and in real life the U.S. withdrew from Vieques in 2003; here's a good website that provides some historical background.)
Prospero, scion of Spanish immigrants who once owned a huge plantation (and kept slaves) here, runs a hotel and a museum on the island. He's also in the forefront of the protests against the U.S. military; as we get to know him a little better, we understand that he's a man forever in search of a cause, in order to justify his self-imposed exile from the mainland and mainstream, where he has an ex-wife and, presumably, other now-shunned contacts. Prospero's 21-year-daughter Miranda lives with him, but she's getting ready to leave, to marry a handsome young man named Ferdinand and move with him to Long Island. The two main servants at the hotel are Ariel, Prospero's man Friday, whose long term of employment here is scheduled to end just three days from now; and Caliban, a local who is on the take, spying on Prospero for assorted military honchos.
During a hurricane, Ferdinand arrives on the island, along with two Americans attached to the naval base—Alonzo, a career officer, and Gonzalo (called "Gonzo" by his friends), a civilian attaché/advisor—and two other Americans—Trinculo, an agent from a large museum whose mission is to try to convince Prospero to lease his extensive collection of island artifacts for an American tour, and Stephano, his lover. One more pair of characters figure in the story—a young Nuyroican named Sprite and his exuberant girlfriend Iris, who are here on a whim, on vacation (Iris thinks of it as their honeymoon, though they haven't even decided for sure that they're getting married).
You can see that Loebell has borrowed liberally from the Bard to populate and structure his tale, and he's used a storm to "strand" his characters on this lush, remote isle. But as I've already suggested, the real tempest in La Tempestad comes later. As each pair goes about trying to get what they want (Trinculo his exhibition and Stephano some relaxation; Ferdinand his bride and Iris her lover; and Caliban his payoffs and Ariel his impending "freedom"), the U.S. Navy gears up for a new round of testing. Only this time, the tests go badly awry, and human error in the cockpit of one military plane results in tragedy. And then, for all of these people now locked together in this historical moment on this remarkable island, nothing can ever be the same.
The grand strength of La Tempestad is that the diverse inhabitants of this play offer unique perspectives on the immediate catastrophe and its broader implications in their own specific worlds. Loebell lets us listen to all that these people have to say; I'll quote just one, whose words resonated very strongly with me, but know that all the others provide food for thought:
TRINCULO: I make my living looking at the past, at the artifacts and evidence that got left behind. I believe in the idea that if you add history up it gets better, not in all ways at all times, but overall. There is no time I want to go back to, no place I'd rather be than here and now. I recognize that despite intermittent oppression because of my sexual orientation—
TRINCULO: Yes, compared to other oppressions one might have had to endure historically. As a Jew in Europe, say, or a native in the new world. This is the culmination of history so far, and even if we find ourselves in a holy war to move the idea of our acceptance further, it has come to the point where it can be war. And we might just win it. Not tomorrow or in two years, probably, but eventually. I cannot hold these two beliefs simultaneously—that life has purpose and progress is imminent and that things are random and nothing matters. So I choose the former. I choose it, that's all.
Later, Trinculo advises Prospero to forgive history, but unlike his Shakespearean counterpart, this Prospero refuses; and so the endless cycle of oppression and manipulation—in which Prospero has played on both sides, often at the same time—continues. Loebell doesn't side with anyone in this resolutely apolitical play, which makes it perhaps a bit unsatisfying for those in search of solutions or prescriptions for the world's ills. Instead, La Tempestad emerges as an achingly honest time capsule. Simple labels like "liberal" or "patriot" are eschewed in favor of depictions of realistic people trying to reconcile the disparate complexities of their personal circumstances with whatever values are most deeply and dearly held—that's what we all do, right? Such is Loebell's America, viewed from the unique vantage point of this tiny island on the very periphery of our country.
Resonance Ensemble has produced this world premiere with great care and skill. Eric Parness's staging is fluid and illuminating, making use of a simple, elegant design (sets are by Martin T. Lopez, lighting by Aaron Copp, costumes by Sidney Shannon, and sound by Nick Moore). The eleven-person ensemble is uniformly fine, with particularly strong performances delivered by Patrick Melville and Brian Flegel as Trinculo and Stephano, Lori McNally as the free spirit Iris, Ray A. Rodriguez and Felipe Javier Gorostiza (costumed and made up to look up almost like twins; a neat touch!) as Caliban and Ariel, and Ed Jewett as a very accessible, if not downright sympathetic, Alonzo.
La Tempestad is, I think, an important play: I hope it will have a significant life after this limited engagement. It's valuable for us to look at ourselves, and rare for a work to provide an opportunity for such reflection, so soon, and with such intensity and objectivity.