Dallas — Performance artist, playwright and professor Fred Curchack bravely revives his three-decades-old one- man version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, titled Stuff as Dreams Are Made On for a two-weekend run at Theatre Too, the intimate basement stage at Theatre Three. (It will also be performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference in Dallas, Jan. 26-Feb. 1.)
The one-hour piece, which I first saw long ago in the even smaller basement space at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, stirs together mime, shadow art and puppetry to heat up the major themes of forgiveness and the relentless speed of life in Shakespeare’s late romance, with an emphasis on the character of Prospero, the grand enchanter himself. Curchack says upfront that he revised the show to accommodate his loss of agility over the past 30 years to arthritis. Never mind the wear and tear of teaching his art to undergraduates, many of whom were in the opening night audience.
In black, short-sleeved coveralls, performing in front of a backlit scrim, Curchack enters wearing a ghoulish white rubber mime mask. He sums up the island shipwreck plot, and assumes his deeper Prospero voice. We meet the magician’s daughter Miranda, a battered baby doll whose eyes still close when she’s horizontal, but who sits on daddy’s lap and calls her pompous father’s bluff occasionally in her high-pitched voice.
Right away, we meet Ariel, chief of the island’s airy spirits commandeered by Prospero, and Caliban, the monster of brute matter enslaved to do all the hard work of making a dumped Italian duke comfortable on a newly discovered island. Curchack dons bright, grotesque commedia dell’arte masks for each of his alter egos. Ariel speak in a cloying falsetto and Caliban growls and snarls his rape threats to Miranda and his vengeful mutterings to his high-handed master Prospero.
The handsome doll-faced Fernando is literally the small head of a male doll stuck on a big white casing, just the right size for wooing Miranda with a comic Italian accent. This girl hasn’t seen anything but a sex-crazed monster and her controlling dad, and so is pretty easily seduced by even a few sweet words. Two dolls making out is not so much funny, as weirdly perverse, since one actor’s hands are making it happen. One-man shows must be resourceful.
Working on a dark stage with a flashlight moving from face to puppet and back, Curchack creates a complex scene by also moving behind the backlit scrim to create big scary monster forms or small alluring fairy forms. Everyone who remembers making shadow silhouettes as a kid is bound to delight in the stuff made in these sequences. There’s also a chair and a standing lamp, and both double as bodies or weapons or whatever, depending on where Curchack throws a prop.
We hear Shakespeare’s language, and many of the famous passages spouted out by the puppets. Ariel sings his song about cowslips and Caliban growls that his profit on learning language is that he can curse better. Prospero also boasts a foul potty mouth, and Caliban turns his butt on the audience and farts. Miranda is just as pissed off as Prospero in several scenes, and even the doll who plays Miranda tells Fred where to stick it when he sulks off stage because the lights aren’t working right.
Chuckles and laughs follow some funny exchanges. Once Miranda meets Ferdinand, she throws Caliban off like a loose mask. “It’s all over between us,” she tells him, “you’re just an illiterate third world witch.” Some stuff doesn’t work. Nobody laughed on opening night when Caliban simulates raping the doll, so Prospero’s scolding us for laughing is confusing. We even hear the actor scolding himself behind the curtain, “Okay, Fred. All this self-indulgent BS is too much. Bad career move; a lot of important people here tonight.” Prospero has his doubting moments, too.
Curchack is not as fast, perhaps, getting on and off the stage, but the mask tricks remain the most revealing aspect of the original and revised show. His Prospero is both Caliban and Ariel in this one-hander. He’s got a short temper, and is easily offended even in his all-encompassing magician guise. He’s annoyed and impatient when his muse Ariel doesn’t perform fast enough. Every maker has been there. He’s both the crude, cowering animal Caliban, and the sensitive, dewy spirit Ariel.
The scene toward the end when Curchack slowly and painfully pulls off all his masks, one by one, is a stunning, revealing moment. Even if you’ve seen it before. We all wear so many masks, it’s a release to see somebody strip down to the bare bodkin of the fleshy face.
By the time the enchanter breaks his magic staff and drowns his book deeper than ever plummet sounded, turned loose his airy spirit and forgiven all his selves and his betrayers, we are as tired as the weary magician.
Prospero’s monologue, from which the title is taken, is especially adroit in this context, when he says, “Bear with me in my weakness; my old brain is troubled; /Be not disturb’d by my infirmity.” We are moved, but not disturbed by Such Stuff.
» Listen to our Up is Down, Left is Right podcast interview with Fred Curchack