...Hast thou forgot
The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy
Was grown into a hoop? Hast thou forgot her?
The Tempest opens with a brief scene of desperation, with sailors and passengers struggling against an overwhelming storm. Following that vivid moment, Shakespeare gives us a full measure of background and exposition.
He paints a huge and vivid canvas. Prospero explains to his daughter Miranda (and thus to us) in great detail the plot that expelled them both from Naples. He then casts a sleeping spell upon Miranda, interrogates Ariel, and recalls the black spell cast by "the foul witch Sycorax." Waking Miranda, the magician calls forth the "poisonous slave" Caliban, son of Sycorax. Master and monster engage in snarling dialogue that tells us how Prospero overcame the "hag-seed" Caliban, taking away his dominion of the island, humiliating him and enslaving him as reprisal for lusting after Miranda.
With all these antecedents in place, the action of The Tempest begins as Ariel, with enchantment and song, drives Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples, onto the stage.
Susan Gayle Todd, a founding member of the six-year-old Weird Sisters Theater Collective in Austin, Texas, rolls back Shakespeare's canvas with her play, Sycorax, locating a wide, almost blank panel. That background is barely touched with the outline of Sycorax, a hint of Ariel's service to the witch, and an unelaborated event in Algiers that resulted in banishment, since "for one thing she did/ They would not take her life." Todd tells the imagined story of Sycorax as a woman healer—an African woman in Arabic Algiers.
The Sisters' staging of Todd's story is an audacious undertaking. Their aim is both artistic and didactic, in keeping with the collective's 2004 manifesto, which reads, in part "we celebrate women—female artists, and even fictitious female characters who shape our understanding of real-live women—who have been silenced or vilified as a result of pervading, institutionalized sexism." As rendered, this new panel of canvas is dark but touched with vivid incident and accompanied by Chris Humphrey's music, which is rhythmic and evocative both of North Africa and of the sub-Sahara.
Sycorax's healing powers are evident but mysterious even to herself. The ghost of her deceased mother visits and assists her, as does the spirit Ariel, who in this telling is by turns conniving, malevolent and devilish. Sycorax acquires an apprentice, Clare—an abused teenage woman who has refused her family's command to marry— and the two carry on twenty years of successful healing. Theirs is a relationship of intimacy and trust, incomprehensible and scandalous to the folk of Algiers.
Todd, a Shakespeare scholar and teacher with a recent Ph.D. from the University of Texas, opens the play with a lengthy extract from the exposition in Shakespeare’s I, 2, before moving back in time to Algiers. The narrative switches forward and back in time, as she interrupts the voyage to banishment with scenes of Sycorax's apprenticeship, her healing career, a duplicitous success in treating the sterility of the governor of Algiers, witch-hunting by the populace seeking a scapegoat for the ravages of a tempest, a lively mocking puppet show, and her arrival on the island accompanied by Ariel.
Central both visually and in terms of plot is the enigmatic relationship between the lithe, dancing, precise and sparkling Ariel (Feliz Dia McDonald) and the Sycorax generations. Azure D. Osborne-Lee plays both Sycorax the healer and her offspring Caliban. Osborne-Lee is strong of bone and body, depicting the title character as assertive and yet uncertain of her gifts.
Playwright Todd and director Christa French move these characters between the realm of the physical and that of the spiritual. We do not know whether Ariel is a mere fevered imagining for Sycorax or a familiar spirit with powers. The rabble of Algiers burn Clare as a witch, but Clare continues as a living presence in the life and misfortunes of Sycorax.
In Todd's story, the grateful governor of Algiers commissions a full-size onyx statue of Sycorax. It's a handy symbol and a vivid image but highly unlikely, given the severe Koranic prohibition of portraits and representational images. (Curiously, the ban doesn't apply to puppetry, and shadow puppetry is a tradition in the Arabic Middle East.) Swallowing hard and indulging the author, one might imagine that the clueless governor's commission of a statue was a last, unacceptable folly that drove the crowds to fury.
By Weird Sisters tradition, women perform all roles, including sailors who are saltier dogs than you'll ever find in Shakespeare. They circle Sycorax on deck as she glowers at them. One tells a long, grotesque tall tale about a man whose private parts were witched away. Another turns away from the audience and mimes urinating in a corner.
We take witness as Sycorax confines Ariel in a cloven pine, a scene that's deftly conceived, beautifully directed and rich with a symbolism that the playwright is perceptive and delicate enough not to comment upon.
The final scene shows Caliban, young and full of hope, recounting a lengthy mythic tale of his ancestors to a worshipful Miranda (Rachel Florence Briles). She huddles at his side in hypnotized adoration, eyes fastened upon him, hands brushing his side, her legs posed upon his.
Caliban's attention is upward, toward the moon overhead. He reaches the moment of apotheosis in his tale just as Vicky Yoder (Prospero) rematerializes in the depths of the stage, stopping to take in the scene. Todd's language is a rich prose. Some of Ariel's incantatory passages have the rhythm of verse.
The Weird Sisters have no fixed venue, and this year they’ve chosen to use a new performance space. The Gemini Playhouse is a tidy, newly-painted studio at the back of a single-story complex of offices and workspaces in south Austin, fronted by the now-closed workshop of Camino Azul Custom Tattoo. The Weird Sisters and their supporters are friendly folk. They'll welcome you, take your voluntary contribution, and provide you with refreshments and an evening of thoughtful entertainment.
Production note: The David Mark Cohen New Play Festival at the University of Texas featured the first production of this script two years ago.
Sycorax runs June 17 – June 27, 2010 at The Gemini Playhouse, 5214 Burleson Road, Austin, TX 78744. Information can be found at http://weirdsisterscollective.com/.