The neomythology of Shakespeare’s The Tempest continues to provide rich literary inspiration after 400 years. The latest digital-age iteration for the stage, Sycorax, Cyber Queen of Qamara by Fengar Gael, brings to life a character who in the Bard’s late great romance is only spoken of. This funny, literary, campy comedy is a Wicked-style corrective for a witch with a terrible reputation.
Shakespeare’s Sycorax was banished, pregnant with the soon-to-be resentful Caliban, to the island where Prospero and Miranda wash up years later. In The Tempest, the powerful witch is only a memory. But much as Robert Browning did for Caliban in his poem “Caliban Upon Setebos,” Gael takes Sycorax’s Shakespearean backstory and builds a very human character.
The cyber-age spin is amusing but mostly ancillary to the heart of the story, which is founded in the literary script. In the Ego Actus production now at HERE through 18 November, it beats to life through Joan Kane’s taut direction and the gaudily theatrical performances she draws from a fine cast centering on a blazing performance by Lauren Capkanis as Young Sycorax.
However, it’s Ancient Sycorax (a gleefully wicked Sandra Bargman) whom we first meet. The play posits that the bitter witch has survived and, through the centuries, slowly scaled up her acts of revenge against the society that rejected her. Armed with laptop and smartphone, Ancient Sycorax presents avatars (her word) of her young self and family in Algiers at the time of the Ottoman conquest.
Sixteen-year-old Sycorax is a rebellious proto-feminist, testing out her incipient supernatural powers by bringing to life the wooden mice she whittles. Taught to read by her older brother (Nick Giedris, brilliant later as Ariel), she bristles at an arranged polygamous marriage to an older man who wants her to produce young sons but seems to be firing blanks. She takes no comfort in being told by one of her husband’s older daughters that at least he admires her beauty: “I wanted to be more: to be a mother, yes, but a mother of children born of love, not vanity.” Finally impregnated but growing ever more resentful of, and resented by, the community, she’s banished.
The script depicts the repression of women in traditional Islamic society, repression that not only persists to this day, but resonates powerfully with 21st-century Western feminism and the #MeToo movement. Young Sycorax’s defiance of traditional roles is highly anachronistic, but it works, because in Capkanis’s enthralling portrayal she is very much larger than life, and all the more appealing thereby.
Gael’s literary skill shines especially in the character of Ariel, cleverly imagined not as a pre-existing island spirit but as the pinnacle of Sycorax’s skill at quickening. Carving him from a pine tree and bringing him to life (aided by the modern magic of Kathryn Lieber’s batik-like projections) the witch has given him the characteristics she and her misshapen but beloved son Caliban (the excellent Michael Pichardo, of last year’s Child’s Play) most want in a companion. Thus in addition to being endowed with elven good looks, the alarmingly omnisexual sprite converses in song and rhyming couplets. Giedris is brilliant in this role.
Ariel welcomes the impending arrival of Prospero and Miranda. The older man’s presence, he feels, will help mature the fatherless Caliban: “Too much mother makes a man strange.” Gael’s comical versions of Shakespeare’s main characters arrive late in the play. That’s when the action veers much more directly into meta-theatricality. Realities collide, confusion bubbles like a witch’s cauldron, momentum sags a bit as the focus shifts from Young Sycorax’s soulful mythology to Ancient Sycorax’s digital threats.
Meanwhile Young Sycorax has matured into a loving mother, a devoted friend, a lustful lover, altogether a most memorable witch. Capkanis is just superb.
My feelings about the ending remain unresolved, but I strongly recommend this captivating production. Extra kudos are due Jeff Sturdivant’s evocative costumes, Ian Wehrle’s lush music accompanying Ariel’s songs, and the technical crew as a whole. Sycorax, Cyber Queen of Qamara runs through 18 November. For schedule and tickets visit the HERE website.