ALL ARTISTS have tricks, notes director Garland Wright, pieces of magic they know will work, dazzle or surprise. In his own career (which includes a fairly dazzling production of "The Imaginary Invalid" at Arena two years ago and a remarkable "Happy End" there last season), Wright has become aware of the tricks of his trade, and his contemplation coincided with his concept for "The Tempest," opening at Arena this week.
"I see Prospero as an artist . . . trying to create the perfect work. He is an omni-artist, like Albert Einstein, or Leonardo da Vinci, or Mozart, or Buckminster Fuller." And so this Prospero (played by Stanley Anderson) is dressed in "subdued modernish" clothes, and the stage, his island, is a bare wooden floor, reminiscent of an artist's loft, "an empty space where he lives and creates," Wright said.
"He is a guy sort of like us, not a Michelangelo version of God with a white beard. And the rest of the production is seen through his eyes, as he creates it."
Ferdinand, for example, the suitor of Prospero's daughter Miranda, has been cast as a prince in the Cinderella mode, the kind of guy who would look perfectly natural riding up on a white horse. The clowns are out of Samuel Beckett, or reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy. "I couldn't get that image out of my mind," Wright said. And the "court" scenes are set in "a sort of Italianate Renaissance period . . . a world in which murder and intrigue come easily."
Not surprisingly, Wright sees "The Tempest" as three plays in one. What is surprising is that he has not directed any Shakespeare since 1976. "I said, 'No more Shakespeare.' Not because I was bored, but because I was beginning to realize how good he was. When you become afraid of a writer . . . you create incredibly dull work."
In the interim he directed other classics, notably several by Molie re, and gradually he was drawn back to the Bard. "The fear just vanished," he said. Since last May he has been preparing for "The Tempest" by studying art books and reading the commentaries ("You have to do that to make sure you aren't making a complete fool of yourself"). He also read Leonardo's diaries and a book by Ernst Fisher on "The Necessity of Art," which discusses the origin of magic and its relation to art -- a theme, as you may have guessed, of this production.
And there is some magic, a few theatrical tricks coming out of trap doors and from the rafters, at one point even turning the four-sided arena into a proscenium . . . "There are moments when you understand that it's a trick and not magic," Wright said. "We get lost in our own work, victimized by our willingness to believe in magic. There's a point in every artist's life when you have to say, 'These are just tricks.' I'm going through that right now."