Two new theatrical enterprises that opened last weekend have the faintest air of a barroom bet: "I can depict a historic shift in the racial hatreds that divide a Southern city ... with four actors. "Well, I can stage Shakespeare's Tempest with three!"
But The Best of Enemies and (Three Man) Tempest, two daring experiments in dramatic minimalism that bowed last week, both rely on hidden resources that enlarge the cast of characters we see on stage.
Economic constraints—and artistic genius—have given the region notable exhibitions along these lines before. The Patrick Stewart-founded Actors From the London Stage (which was headquartered at UNC-Chapel Hill during the 1990s) repeatedly astonished audiences with touring versions of Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest—each performed by a cast of five. And many will recall Tiny Ninja Theater's visits to Manbites Dog Theater, solo shows in which Dov Weinstein manipulated a phalanx of plastic 25-cent-machine dolls across ironing boards and music stands, through improbable adaptations of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth.
(Three Man) Tempest seems an unlikely combination of the two. Randolph Curtis Rand usually manages a bit of theatrical time travel in most of his productions. Here, the historical costume and staging conventions he tweaks include an altered proscenium stage and the all-but-pantomimed representations of two villains at midshow.
But the main form of theater that Rand takes his audiences back to here is one that almost all of us indulged in during early childhood. Daniel Winters' dimmed, bare electric lightbulbs suggest a seldom-visited repository for discarded books and toys and dreams in some attic. And any girl or boy who ever literally voiced his or her wildest aspirations and fears through dolls or action figures as a 4-, 5- or 6-year-old is likely to feel the flashback through parts of this intermissionless 100-minute show.
At the outset, Rand intones instructions spliced into the text from Timothy Leary's 1964 version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. "You are now in the magic theatre of heroes and demons ... do not be afraid of them ... recognize the figures as aspects of yourself."
And frequently in this production, such figures are literally that: a random series of toys, dolls and figurines pressed into service as supporting characters manipulated by Rand, Adam Patterson and the one-named Carter in the principal roles of Prospero, Miranda and Caliban. (Our favorite? A toy tyrannosaurus skull that stands for Antonio, Prospero's devious brother.) The troika evinces no small amount of ingenuity threading through various adaptation and staging dilemmas posed by such a low-budget aesthetic.
But hubris appears when they take an already daunting challenge even further, using just one actor to stage entire scenes. Doll play initially as amusing and ribald as this drags when the first exchanges among Carter's Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano drags when extended too long.
In the spiritual realm, the nonattachment Leary advocated indicates transcendence. But in theater, nonattachment usually signals that a device or technique is no longer working. Examples of both occur here in an imaginative production that occasionally presses its luck a bit too far.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fantastic journeys."