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The jokers are wild, yet again. Gary Rucker and Sean Patterson, that is. Last year, these two were cast as the nasty stepsisters in Rivertown Rep's production of Cinderella. Disney Inc. didn't go for the cross-gender casting, however. In fact, threatened to yank the rights, unless Rivertown got rid of the drag siblings. Rucker and Patterson were replaced, but as revenge, they staged a post-show epilogue that took a trenchant comic ax to the billion-dollar bean pole of the entertainment giant. "Macho Stepsisters Whack the Mouse," Variety might have headlined the scandal.

God only knows how the showbiz rag would headline the latest caper of the dubious duo: Shakespeare's The Tempest, performed by a cast of four.

As with the Cinderella stunt, Rucker and Patterson were provoked into their latest burst of unorthodoxy. The Tempest (in full form) was scheduled as part of this year's Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, but it was suddenly withdrawn. Rucker and Patterson, who had been cast in that production, found themselves shipwrecked and marooned, so to speak. They asked Festival Director AimŽe Michel if they could devise a very inexpensive, drastically reduced version of the play. The lady kindly, if rashly, acceded.

So, how does one take a complicated story involving more than 20 characters and boil it down to a four-hander? Nerve helps, obviously, but imagination is the crucial ingredient. Oddly enough, the reduced circumstances can actually enrich the experience. Let me put it another way. We have grown used to seeing Shakespeare done in modern dress. But that is often merely a costuming device. Modern grunts getting a pre-battle pep talk in Elizabethan iambic pentameter from a Harry-King-Of-England in fatigues doesn't really give us a radically new sense of the Bard. However, a retelling of Prospero's story by four actors in an abstract, nonlinear staging gives you a kind of psychic whiplash. Everything is wonderfully altered. Prospero's island and Peter Pan's island are suddenly akin. More shockingly still, you realize Trinculo and Caliban could easily be convinced that Godot will soon arrive. All they have to do is wait.

For The Tempest, the Lupin Theater at Tulane is configured in the round. On the blue floor, there is a small model sailing ship. The lights go black. Prospero (Robert Richardson) enters and turns on a hurricane lantern he's holding. Sean Patterson and Gary Rucker in vague fantasy togs, charge onstage with a bolt of cloth, which they unwind onto the floor, while shouting at each other as though sailors on a storm-battered ship.

Miranda (Jessica Podewell) enters with Prospero. He tells her the chronicle of their woes: who he is, who she is and how they ended up on this godforsaken island. In short, he's the duke of Milan, who was treacherously deposed by his brother. Miranda, his teenage daughter, is in fact a princess -- or would be if they could regain their kingdom.

In this staging, Richardson remains Prospero throughout, for the story is basically his story. Rucker, Patterson and Podewell transform themselves into everyone else. Sometimes the transformations are fully accomplished. For instance, Rucker becomes Ariel, the spirit, as well as Ferdinand, Miranda's suitor, as well as Trinculo, a drunken shipwrecked sailor. But sometimes, the transformations are symbolic. For instance, Patterson is mainly Caliban, the enslaved monster, but he also dons a bunch of hats to give us a subplot about the aristocratic passengers.

In short, this production is a freeform fantasia on Shakespeare's late (perhaps last) play. Although there is no dancing, the approach to the material is similar to a ballet based on the themes of The Tempest. Prospero starts with magic (which is an extreme form of control) as his weapon and revenge as his goal. But from the start, Prospero is struggling against a deeper, purer resolution. The true magic that he ultimately taps into is forgiveness. But could he have achieved it without first humbling his adversaries?

This retelling of Prospero's tale, while taking us through many comic delights along the way, focuses our attention on Prospero's basic ethical problem -- a problem we mortal fools know only too well.

Bravo to Sean Patterson, Jessica Podewell, Robert Richardson and Gary Rucker, who are credited with conceiving as well as performing the show, for the conception and performances are top notch. Bravo as well to AimŽe Michel for giving this hardy gang the go-ahead. The full-scale, scheduled Tempest was to some extent bushwhacked by Katrina. But this adventurous, vital and thrifty miniature proves that recovery is mostly a state of mind.

click to enlarge Prospero and Miranda are among the castaways in this - imaginatively paired-down version of  The Tempest.
  • Prospero and Miranda are among the castaways in this imaginatively paired-down version of The Tempest.

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