by ASHLEY STEED
it comes to Shakespeare, it can be daunting for a director to put his or her personal stamp on the work without taking considerable liberties with — or making significant alterations to — the text. But for John Farmanesh-Bocca, breathing new life into a classic production is wrought from laser-like attention to Shakespeare’s words, and from utilizing precision with the original language.
“Language is hugely important to me,” says Farmanesh-Bocca. “Profoundly important. Every minute I spend on physicality, I spend two minutes on the language.”
In Tempest Redux — a joint collaboration between the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and The New American Theatre — the Bard’s The Tempest is deconstructed, but not ill-manipulated, to breathe life into a familiar story. Farmanesh-Bocca (who adapted, directed, and choreographed the piece) says this deconstruction process all comes down to finding the core of the story, and the core of its characters, without rewriting the text. Speaking of his production of Pericles Redux, which premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2008 with his physical movement company, Not Man Apart, he admits, “I was accused of re-writing it. Actually, I didn’t write one single word.” Similarly with Tempest, which he edited in a week, some scenes have been moved around and cuts have been made, but he ensures that “there is not [one] new line you are hearing.”
What is changed in Tempest Redux is intended to cut to the heart of the text by eliminating the extraneous, or the unrelatable. Properso for example, he explains, is royalty in Shakespeare’s original text — the Duke of Milan.
“We don’t really relate to nobility,” says Farmanesh-Bocca. So in the Redux, Prospero is a refugee — “someone who has gotten in a boat and has traversed death, the sea, inhospitable climates to find a better life.” This choice wasn’t intended to be topical, he stresses — referencing the Syrian refugee crisis — as families have fled to other lands seeking asylum for millennia. But for him, a man washing up on shore with his child, and the urgency to protect that child, is the fabric of the Tempest story from which all action derives.
“I wanted to make the play more itself, as it gets shorter and boils down to the rue,” he says. “More itself, not less itself,” he reiterates.
Farmanesh-Bocca is, however, very conscious of the fact that audiences have a collective idea of what Shakespeare’s plays are about — including old tropes that are associated with classic texts. For him, it’s all about either eliminating these tropes all together, or embracing them. “I either have to get rid of it,” he explains, “or double down and make a ‘thing’ of it.” For instance, when the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand meet for the first time, Farmanesh-Bocca has them stare longingly at each other as the music swells.
In these types of moments, he says, he chooses to acknowledge these devices. “Let’s go all the way into that trope and make people laugh at it.”
The ability to deconstruct a Shakespearean text and fashion it into something new and exciting, while simultaneously traditional and familiar, can only happen from a deep understanding of the texts — and Farmanesh-Bocca has had, accordingly, a long and intimate career with these plays. As a child, he first encountered Shakespeare at the Carmel Shakespeare Festival; the first play he saw, he says, was Henry IV, Part I. He fell in love with the production — so much so that he sat in the audience every day. Eventually, the company took him under their wing and — ten years after that — he was playing Hal in Henry IV, working with the same director of that first production he saw.
“Every movement you make is dance.
If I’m reaching for a glass, that’s a dance.
All movement is beautiful.
All movement is this gorgeous, sumptuous
opportunity to bare your soul.”
Eventually, he became the Artistic Director of Shakespeare Santa Monica. Set up at the tennis courts at Reed Park, they did 26 of Shakespeare’s plays in 11 years. The focus was not on full productions, but on really understanding the texts and bringing them to life. He credits this experience with his ability to play and experiment. “The Tempest,” he admits, “is actually one of the hardest I’ve worked on. There were a lot of times where I was throwing the script across the room and was pulling out my hair.”
His additional training in ballet and modern dance have also significantly contributed to the creation of Tempest Redux, in which intense physical theatre is an integral part of the staging.
“The body and what it can express is too powerful an instrument not to bring to the fore,” he says. “One of the reasons I love Shakespeare is because the rhythm of the language means that you’re not just going to hear words, you’re going to feel words. Because of that, you have this really wonderful opportunity to involve the body.” Speaking to his philosophy on movement onstage, he adds, “Every movement you make is dance. If I’m reaching for a glass, that’s a dance. All movement is beautiful. All movement is this gorgeous, sumptuous opportunity to bare your soul.”
Language and the body, says Farmanesh-Bocca, are two of his three fanaticisms. The third? Music. Tempest Redux is wall-to-wall sound, which he designed alongside Adam Phelan. Most of it is deconstructed Vivaldi by composer Max Richter and interspersed with jazz and bluesy vocals of Dinah Washington. After all, he quotes Caliban’s famous line, “‘the island is full of noises’… Everything heightens everything else. It’s got to be a whole living thing.”
Though this “whole living thing” isn’t necessarily, or even desirably, realistic. “I don’t want to make theatre that looks like real life,” he says. “What I want to make is theatre that says, ‘this is what life is like’. We imagine ourselves beyond the physical restraints of our bodies. We imagine because we realize, whether we know it or not, these bodies we live in are just meat vehicles. That we go beyond this. You can be here in your body but be across the country thinking about someone you love. When you start with that as a basis… then you can ask, How do we use this vehicle to express this massive soul?”
One of the inspirations for his work that he cites is the late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who was best known for his deconstruction of traditional fabrics and designs. Farmanesh-Bocca describes McQueen’s work as his ideal — the designer’s ability to bring multiple styles together, cutting and stitching pieces and ideas into imaginative works of art. Likening his process to McQueen’s work, he says, “I take the fabric of ancient or things steeped in tradition, and I cut the outfit in the most inventive way I can. And I tailor it to the actors.”
While Farmanesh-Bocca acknowledges that the reviews for Tempest Redux have been glowing, he ensures that this process has been a result of “thousands of hours” of trial and error. “It didn’t take a week to cut this [play down]; it took 25 years of my life. It took 25 years of me discovering my body, and my company’s body, and developing my physical approach to the stage. Busting my ass on my stagecraft. I’ve given my life to be able to do this.”
In going back to Shakespeare, he says, “These plays will always be done, because there’s truth in there. There’s some deep, deep truth. And getting to the bottom of the truth, needs be just as essential to how you’re going to stage it.”
NOW PLAYING: TEMPEST REDUX at Odyssey Theatre, through April 23.
Derived from Shakespeare’s fantasy, The Tempest, this freshly conceived reconstruction is a potent confection of physical theater and verbal gymnastics — a father-daughter story for the ages that explores the power of love and forgiveness.