Bleached out

If, while in the grocery checkout or ATM line, you find yourself standing next to a young man or woman with a shockingly inappropriate platinum dye job, there are two possible explanations--either the person shares Dennis Rodman's hairdresser, or he or she is a cast member of Kitchen Dog Theater's new production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest.

In order to complete Kitchen Dog's visually stylized version of Shakespeare's last, most psychologically enigmatic play, five cast members evidently have been compelled to color their hair a brassy blonde to complement their all-white attire. These pale characters have two things in common--they are all part of a royal Italian contingent, and they are all shipwrecked on a remote island ruled with irritable grace by Prospero (Sheriden Thomas), herself a deposed Italian duke who, for the last 12 years, has raised her beloved daughter Miranda (Chane't Johnson) far away from the kind of treachery that caused her ouster.

Obviously, as Shakespeare fans will now realize, Kitchen Dog's adaptation of The Tempest fiddles with more than just characters' appearances. Director Dan Day has reconfigured Willie's mysterious, magic-laden look at petty affairs of the state into a vaguely feminist look at the triumph of nature over knowledge. An essay by Day in the show's program clarifies this, but the chief weapon in his onslaught against the rational Western mind is casting the traditionally male roles of Prospero, the Italian king Alonso (Kateri Cale), and the treacherous, wine-swilling servant Stephano (Heather Hanna) with female actors. Additionally, Day has cut the original script considerably, forsaking some of the frivolity and mischief-making to focus on the bare-bones conflicts among opposing entities--the aforementioned intuition and rationality, youth and maturity, vengeance and forgiveness, loyalty and betrayal.

As regular readers of this space can confirm, I'm no Shakespearean purist--let's face it, his works have become just a series of quotable riffs on the human condition. Dan Day's cuts indeed benefit the dramatic tension in a play that overflows with spacy meditations on the nature of reality, creation, and perception. But on the issue of whether he's achieved the goals stated in his introductory statement--portraying the personal journey of Prospero from curmudgeonly scholar to forgiver as an effort to balance masculine and feminine--I'm skeptical. But ideological ambitions aside, the whole gender-bending exercise is still worth it to allow crafty, crotchety, sensual Sheriden Thomas a crack at Prospero.

The Tempest is perhaps Shakespeare's most nakedly psychoanalytic work, pretty weird considering nobody had ever heard of psychoanalysis in Elizabethan England. This has led commentators from Coleridge on to speculate that Prospero, the embittered former duke who's become a misanthropic scholar while in isolation, is a virtual stand-in for the playwright. Not being a Shakespearean scholar myself, I can't compare the personalities and concerns of the author and his creation, but I can venture that The Tempest is so packed with symbolism and metaphorical interpretation, it's (over)ripe for interpretation. Before the ship full of Italian nobility scatters its human contents, the remote island where Prospero and Miranda dwell also features two unearthly creatures who do Prospero's bidding--the frolicsome spirit of air and fire, Ariel (Bill Lengfelder, an agile and charming acrobat-actor), and debased but ambitious Caliban (Daniel Murray), an animalistic servant who's willing to (literally) lick anyone's boots for a chance to escape his stern master. As extensions of the lead character (and, if you believe the hype, Shakespeare himself), Ariel and Caliban are the Jungian light and shadow sides. Both actors perform their prescribed functions winningly, with Murray lending a Gollum-like, sinister obsequiousness to his role.

Unfortunately, the castaways on Prospero's island in this version of The Tempest don't fare nearly as well. The decision to bleach their hair, skin, and clothes becomes an ironic commentary on how indistinguishable these performances are from one another. Ariel whips up the storm that strands king Alonso; Alonso's son Ferdinand (Michael Federido); scheming assistants Antonio (Ira Steck) and Sebastian (Aaron Ginsburg); former Prospero aide Gonzalo (David Irving); and Stephano and sidekick Trinculo (Michael Aronov). The machinations of Antonio and Sebastian, who hope to seize the emergency and assassinate Alonso, run together in a blur of bland characterizations. Gonzalo, the last in a line of faithful, virtuous, almost Christ-like Shakespearean servants (see Juliet's nurse and Desdemona's maidservant), threatens to fade before our very eyes because of Irving's perfunctory performance.

Interestingly, the two shipwrecked characters not given a top-to-bottom whiteout are the most compelling in this Italian contingent. Heather Hanna as Stephano underscores her role with an appropriate cockiness that fully supports her character's murderous ambitions. Michael Aronov, a bushy-haired Russian immigrant to Dallas, steals every scene he's in as the dimwitted but fatally honest Trinculo. It seems to me Shakespearean comedy is even more difficult to translate for contemporary audiences than the Bard's tragedy, and Aronov keeps the audience laughing with his nimble portrayal of another stock character in this playwright's stable--the wise-despite-himself working joe (see the gravediggers in Hamlet).

Kitchen Dog Theater's gender subversion of the original Tempest doesn't really address the concerns that director Dan Day lays out in the program essay, but it does provide recent Kitchen Dog addition Sheriden Thomas a chance to shine. The stout, acerbic Thomas already proved she could handle traditionally masculine territory with authentic performances as men in last season's Dallas Theater Center performance of Angels in America. In her performance as the angry, articulate Prospero, Thomas opts for neither butch mannerism nor femme inversion of a macho role. Her presence is pure caffeinated androgyny, and it's the production's biggest claim to sexual anarchy: Thomas' fluidity and eloquence with Shakespeare's language actually renders Prospero's gender irrelevant--she makes her character a true essence of conflicted ideas and feelings, tenderness and brutality with whom anyone can identify. I don't know if this is the kind of commentary director-adapter Dan Day had in mind, but Thomas' ambisexuality is the most memorable thing about Kitchen Dog's The Tempest.

The Tempest runs through November 16. Call 953-1055.

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Jimmy Fowler