"All the world's a stage," Shakespeare wrote, but a number of productions in town right now seem to have turned the proposition inside out. The stage itself -- its conventions and peculiarities -- has become an image for the world.
Drop into Arena Stage any one of these nights, for starters, and you'll see most clearly what I mean. But there's also evidence aplenty elsewhere to suggest that the theater, like some politicians, is getting into the regular habit of quoting itself.
Arena has opened its season with a production of "The Tempest," surely one of Shakespeare's most exotic romances. It is, remember, the tumultuous saga of a certain Italian duke named Prospero, driven by the perfidy of politics to a deserted island. There, for 12 years, he has fed off the resentment in his soul and nurtured his magical powers in preparation for the day when he can take revenge on his enemies. He has astonishing tricks waiting to burst from the tip of his wand and an indefatigable sprite, Ariel, to serve as his errand boy. When his enemies are washed ashore in a storm -- a storm of Prospero's own conjuring -- the day of reckoning is at hand.
More than any play in Shakespeare's canon, "The Tempest" extends carte blanche to directors and designers. Prospero's island exists only in the atlas of the imagination. It is a locale and a society unto itself; here, even the laws of nature have been suspended. A "Macbeth" or a "Hamlet" comes with certain historical and social underpinnings that must be attended to. But "The Tempest" is far less encumbered. While it may be going too far to set it in outer space, as did one overly fanciful production in my theatergoing past, it can take place just about anywhere remote and evocative.
And at Arena? Director Garland Wright has chosen to situate the action on a polished white-pine floor, equipped with more trap doors than ever booby-trapped an Abbott and Costello film. If a body of water is needed for those drunken clowns Trinculo and Stefano (speaking of Abbott and Costello) to splash in, or a banquet table must materialize from thin air to tempt those shipwrecked victims, one of the trap doors swings open efficiently and the requisite pool or repast rises into view.
"The Tempest" is about magic so Wright has forthrightly, and with a good deal of ingenuity, staged it as an unabashed magic show. Performers are forever popping into view -- either because they've been shot up through the floor, like missiles, or lowered down from the rafters, like a ship's baggage. (Wright is equally capable of reversing the process by pulling the floor out from under his performers or hoisting them off their feet, thereby sending them right back where they've come from.)
But all the while the stage doesn't pretend to be anything more than a stage. The backstage machines -- the lifts and the pulleys and counterweights that are usually tucked out of sight -- are fully and frankly exploited in this production. Prospero's enchanted island is a platform for prestidigitation -- pure and simple. A world has not just been put on the stage; it has merged with the stage, become one with the stage. The prevailing metaphors for the evening have been plucked from the theater's own vocabulary.
On the surface of things, Arena's production is a crowd-pleaser. But once all the tricks have been sprung, you may have a curiously empty feeling. If "The Tempest" is about magic, it is also about considerably more: the nightmares and dreams in our heads, the anger and forgiveness in our souls, the servitude and freedom in our relationships. Above all, it may be about coming to terms with our finite limitations as human beings and artists. But I'm not sure you'll find yourself thinking in those terms at Arena.
The sleights of hand, entertaining as they are, end up slighting the play itself. You may be caught up in the flip-flopping trickery, but it is unlikely you will be engulfed by the emotional turmoil of Shakespeare's drama. The production is as self-contained as a vaudeville act. The references it makes to the complex business of living tend to be laborious and unconvincing. The only business this "Tempest" is really sure about is show business.
A related phenomenon is operating at the Folger Theatre, which has taken on the considerable challenge of that huge, intimidating tragedy that is "King Lear." If Arena's "Tempest" is Shakespeare as a magic show, the Folger's "Lear" is Shakespeare as a puppet show. That's not to say that director John Neville-Andrews and his cast are over-simplifying the evening's emotions. In the measure of their uneven abilities, the actors are all trying to meet the demands of the script.
Nonetheless, the overall look and tone of the production is what you might expect from a marionettist who had perversely chosen to accentuate the darker side of things. The set -- a flight of stone stairs rising sharply to the raging heavens -- purposefully eliminates any sense of physical depth. The performers are elevated above the spectators' heads, at the same time they have been pushed to the front of the playhouse. The play's dimensions, you see, are being rigorously contained in a shallow oblong; there are no wild heaths here for Lear to ramble over madly; no skies bleeding into infinity.
Neville-Andrews' staging, in fact, suggests nothing so much as a fairytale unfolding in a box. (The costumes seem to have been borrowed from the one poisonous closet in the Disney studio.) And the actors, rising from behind those stone steps, could be puppets, thrust upward by unseen hands. The whole design is artfully childlike.
Is it also a reduction of Shakespeare? Probably. But since few theater companies ever master "Lear" in its totality, the approach somehow seems more justifiable than Arena's. The play does have the once-upon-a-time aspects of a tale set in never-neverland: an arrogant and injudicious king, vicious princesses, a fool who's always getting underfoot, rampant evil and unadulterated goodness. At the expense of a certain metaphysical grandeur, the Folger production does achieve an interesting perspective on the classic. But it's still a case of theater drawing on theater for its inspiration.
Shakespeare isn't always the one to suffer such revisions. Consider matters at the Round House Theatre, which is giving Robert Ingham's historical drama, "Custer," a second chance. Performed four years ago by the Folger Theatre in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, that play was originally a meeting of ghosts on a windswept plain that could have been purgatory. Its intent was to examine the legend and legacy of General Armstrong Custer, the hero (or madman) who led his men into massacre at the Little Big Horn. But something was wrong the first time around. The work needed a more rigorous structure to contain its sprawling thoughts and feelings.
The solution envisioned by director David Cromwell for the Round House revival is not a vast improvement. But his choice is significant: making a few adjustments here and there, he has tried to transform the play into a 19th-century Chatauqua tent show. Instead of ghosts, we now have Custer's widow and a handful of veterans from the Seventh Cavalry, giving a lecture and slide show in honor of Custer's memory and re-enacting historical scenes for the edification of the public. Mrs. Custer has even gone so far as to hire actors to stand in for her deceased husband and some of the men who went to their death with him. The result: A drama that had nothing to do with theater at all is now, at least partially, about theater itself.
Horizons hasn't quite gone that route with its current production of Joan Schenkar's "Signs of Life." But it's certainly one of the possibilities that director Leslie Bravman Jacobsen is entertaining in the course of this bizarre work, which compares and contrasts the fates of Jane Meritt, a Victorian freak known as the Elephant Woman, and Alice James, the neurasthenic sister of novelist Henry James.
Although the action, such as it is, transpires primarily over tea tables and sick beds, the Horizons set consists of circular platforms -- not unlike circus rings -- one of which is capped with a graceful white tent. The play is certainly confusing and Jacobsen goes at it from several directions. But the notion that comes through most strongly is the parallel Jacobsen draws between the perversities of Victorian society and the exploitative hurly-burly of the Big Top.
It is understandable that theater people, when casting about for ways to illuminate the human condition, would seize upon what they know best: the practice and ploys of theater itself. We are all players, making our sundry entrances and exits (Shakespeare again). Life is a cabaret. And there's no business like show business. And yet it can be argued that life is not a cabaret; it can be a football game, a bowl of cherries, a bed of thorns or a presidential debate. And there is, after all, a fair amount of business on this planet, besides show. By offering itself up as the chief metaphor for life, the theater is depriving itself of a vast range of interpretive possibilities. It ends up looking inward when it should be looking outward.
Nowhere is the theater's tendency to feed on itself more evident than in the Broadway musical. "42nd Street," scheduled for a return engagement to the National Theatre early next year, celebrates the hoariest of backstage maxims -- today an understudy, but tomorrow a star -- with the panache and spectacle DeMille used to reserve for the Bible. We all want to believe in the possibility of the big break (corny as it is, "42nd Street" does, too). But the only big breaks Broadway musicals seem to subscribe to these days have to do with getting a whack at stardom.
Such long-running New York shows as "Dreamgirls," "La Cage Aux Folles," "The Tap Dance Kid" and the marathon champ, "A Chorus Line" are essentially preoccupied with the trials and triumphs of performers. Are their vicissitudes truly emblematic of the ups and downs the rest of us are experiencing?
Of course, there's always "Cats," the National's current tenant, to prove the exception to the rule. "Cats" explores the mysteries of the four-legged species, doesn't it? Unless it's really a show about something else entirely. Is it selling out because of what it tells us about feline behavior? Or because it is a deft and colorful display of impersonation?
"Cats" may just be a show about actors portraying cats, in which case its real subject matter is the art of acting and the artistry of make-up. If that's true, its jack-in-the-box surprises are not that far removed from the trap door marvels of Arena's "Tempest." And all the animal world is just a stage, too.