The following is excerpted from www.TheExaminer.com, in a review dated June 22, 2010 penned by Ryan E. Johnson, Austin Theater Examiner. Read the full review here

Clare, Sycorax and baby CalibanThe Tempest has been hailed as one of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and has delighted audiences and readers for centuries, but there’s always one character that puzzles most of those who experience the play, and that’s the witch Sycorax. This enigmatic figure has been the subject of much research and theories amongst analysts and fans alike, and now Austin’s own Weird Sisters Theater Collective has decided to show the world their interpretation of the past of this Algerian witch with Sycorax. This original work, written by Susan Gayle Todd, re-imagines the old crone most know as a lesbian healer, tortured by the vengeful spirit Ariel and pushed around by those who she most tried to help. Todd’s piece, directed by the author and Christa French, takes the characters we all know and love from the original play and turns them upside down, making it an intriguing experience for anyone familiar with the play, though it might be a bit of a challenge for those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s work.

As the play begins, and we’re presented with each of the characters, a major problem rears its ugly head: these woman, on the whole, make rather unconvincing men. They may stick hair to their chins, and try to talk in the manliest accents they can muster, but there’s a certain femininity that they just can’t hide. Despite this setback, many members of the supporting cast create some memorable moments, especially the group of women playing the sailors. Full of fire and vinegar, they’re a vulgar and rowdy bunch, bringing out a lot of chuckles with their raunchy stories and caustic jabs, creating some of the most memorable segments of the play. Another fine moment comes when the actors come together to create a puppet show, a colorful, tongue-in-cheek exploration of mob mentality, which creates a comical interlude before one of the play’s most tragic momoments.

The cast is comparatively large, but in truth, the meat of the play comes from only three characters: Sycorax, played by Azure D. Osborne-Lee, her girlfriend, Clare, played by Noelle Fitzsimmons, and Ariel, played by Feliz Dia McDonald. Of these, McDonald’s Ariel stands out as best, the furious, bold, cocky sprite a complete contradiction to the Ariel we’ve all known from Shakespeare’s tale. McDonald’s Ariel moves with the grace and litheness of the dancer, bending and squatting with ritualistic motions, her long soliloquy in the middle of the play making for a frightening experience. Osborne-Lee plays Sycorax as a woman wronged, who has everything she could ever want, only to have it all pulled away from her. She handles the highest levels of emotion with skill, her anger or heartbreak roaring across the stage like a tidal wave, but when she needs to pull back to get in touch with her tender or sensitive side, something falls away, and she loses a touch of her believability. The odd woman out here is Fitzsimmons as Clare, who’s acting style just seems too modern for this production.  Her mannerisms and look seem as if they were plucked from a different plays, and are completely out of place in the world of the play. She carries her final monologue with some flare, but on the whole, she never reaches the heights required to match the performances of the rest of the main cast.

Barleycorn and CreadyThis take on the life of Sycorax is a bizarre one, and the liberties taken with well-known characters may anger some fans of The Tempest, but most will find the experience worthwhile. Though they never truly convince the audience of their masculinity, the actors offer respectable performances, especially McDonald as Ariel, rising head-and-shoulders above the rest of the ensemble to create one of the most

fascinating characters will see for some time. It may not hit all the right notes for all visitors, but it shows the Weird Sisters Theatre Collection as a growing company moving in the right direction, which deserves a much bigger audience.

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The following is excerpted from www.theAustinist.com, in a review dated June 24, 2010 penned by Georgia Young. Read the full review here >

Sycorax and ClareWoe to the women of Shakespeare! It seems so many of them can be filed into two neat categories: fools who sacrifice their lives for love, and evil hags. However, contemporary theatermakers often take advantage of the playwright’s cadaverous status to reinterpret his work (and well they should).

Hence Sycorax, a new play by Susan Gayle Todd, of the Weird Sisters Women’s Theater Collective, which produced this production at a new performance space, the Gemini Playhouse. This play, a response to The Tempest, focuses on Sycorax, mother of Caliban. Opening with text taken from Shakespeare’s play, the audience gets a quick rundown of the situation: we meet Prospero, an exiled Italian duke and sorceror, living on an island with his teenage daughter, Miranda; a spirit, Ariel; and the beastly Caliban. Prospero subjugates all three—his offspring seems like a helpless flake, Ariel is constantly threatened by Prospero’s power (he freed Ariel from imprisonment by Sycorax in a tree), and Caliban is bossed around and reminded that his mother was a “foul witch.” There’s plenty to respond to here, and Todd has chosen to focus on the woman who receives only brief mention in Shakespeare’s text, but whose impact on Ariel and Caliban reverberate. We know little of Sycorax: she was apparently banished from Algiers for sorcery and dumped, pregnant, on this remote island.

That leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and Todd writes this woman as a black, lesbian healer, who—surprise surprise—is useful to those in power only until they get themselves in trouble and need somebody to blame. Todd follows the arc of Sycorax’s life, the rise of her reputation as a sort of shaman-doctor bringing her financial comfort and fame, her romantic partnership with a female assistant, and her run-ins with the sometimes embarrassing, sometimes vicious behavior of powerful men. The play hops between this progression and her voyage to the island, her punishment as a scapegoat for the vanities and waste of the governor of Algiers. Imprisoned, oddly, on the ship’s deck, sailors eye her warily, telling piggish jokes and sexist stories and urging one particularly wimpy looking deckhand to use her as he will.

Acting ability ranges widely—the all-female cast handles male roles with varying success, though the caricatured feel of many of the masculine roles doesn’t seem out of place, since Todd’s text has nothing nice to say about any of them. Azure Osborne-Lee’s sturdy, resolute Sycorax contrasts with Feliz Dia McDonald’s puckish, sharp-toothed Ariel, and Noelle Fitzsimmons, as Sycorax’s lover Clare, radiates a goofy sweetness that makes the relationship feel genuine….

The story itself is interesting, though the bawdy sailor talk sometimes drags, and there’s a female circumcision scene that somehow manages to be both yucky, inoffensive, and unclear (a peek at the program clarified what was going on). Todd writes a rich life for Sycorax, but there are a few confusing points. In her portrayal of Ariel and Sycorax’s relationship, Ariel appears to have lent magical power to Sycorax most of her life, jealously criticizing and sabotaging her relationships. The spirit, in spite of his apparent position of power, seems to profess that he is serving Sycorax—this falls in line with Shakespeare’s text, but leaves unanswered questions about how Sycorax is able to eventually trap him and how Prospero is able to control him later.

Another question that must be asked of this feminist response to The Tempest is why Todd doesn’t address the issue of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. In her brief appearances in Sycorax, Miranda is still a dreamy, dopey teenager, in thrall to the only two men she has ever known—her father and Caliban. The play closes with an imagined scene between Caliban and Miranda, taking place before the time of The Tempest, an apparently mutually romantic moment, (perhaps meant to portray what Prospero implied was Caliban’s attempted rape of the girl). The scene ties up Todd’s story nicely, as Caliban tells the story of his mother and father, mirroring Sycorax’s own fantastical self-penned origin story earlier in the play. Todd mostly maintains a sharp focus on Sycorax, but this final scene leaves one wondering why the black, lesbian healer got a voice, while poor Miranda was left as tongue-tied as ever.

Todd and the Weird Sisters have created a rich slice of one woman’s world. Sycorax may not be a particularly direct critique of The Tempest, but it fills in a gap in one of Shakespeare’s universes, an interesting exercise for a Bard-focused theater group.

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The following is excerpted from www.AustinLiveTheater.com, in a review dated June 23, 2010 penned by Michael Meigs. Read the full review here >

Susan Gayle Todd, a founding member of the six-year-old Weird Sisters Theater Collective, rolled Shakespeare’s canvas back, locating a wide, almost blank panel.  It was barely touched with the outline of Sycorax, a hint of Ariel’s service to the witch, and an unelaborated event in Algiers that resulted in banishment, since “for one thing she did/ They would not take her life.”   Todd tells the imagined story of Sycorax as a woman healer, an African woman in Arabic Algiers.

The David Mark Cohen New Play Festival at the University of Texas featured the first production of this script two years ago. The Sisters’  staging of Todd’s story is an audacious undertaking. Their aim is both artistic and didactic, in keeping with the collective’s 2004 manifesto, which reads, in part “we celebrate women—female artists, and even fictitious female characters who shape our understanding of real-live women—who have been silenced or vilified as a result of pervading, institutionalized sexism.”  As rendered, this new panel of canvas is dark but touched with vivid incident and accompanied by Chris Humphrey’s music, rhythmic and evocative  both of north Africa and of the sub-Sahara.

Sycorax’s healing powers are evident but mysterious even to herself.  The ghost of her deceased mother visits and assists her, as does the spirit Ariel, who in this telling is by turns conniving, malevolent and devilish.  Sycorax acquires an apprentice, Clare, an abused teenage woman who has refused her family’s command to marry, and the two carry on twenty years of successful healing.  Theirs is a relationship of intimacy and trust, incomprehensible and scandalous to the folk of Algiers.

Todd, a Shakespeare scholar and teacher with a recent Ph.D. from the University of Texas, opens the play with a lengthy extract from the exposition in Act I, Scene 2, before moving back in time to Algiers.  The narrative switches forward and back in time, with the voyage to banishment interrupted by scenes of Sycorax’s apprenticeship, her healing career, a duplicitous success in treating the sterility of the governor of Algiers, witch-hunting by the populace seeking a scapegoat for the ravages of a tempest, a lively mocking puppet show, and her arrival on the island accompanied by Ariel.

Central both visually and in terms of plot is the enigmatic relationship between the lithe, dancing, precise and sparkling Ariel (Feliz Dia McDonald) and the Sycorax generations.  Azure D. Osborne-Lee plays both Sycorax the healer and her offspring Caliban.  Osborne-Lee is strong of bone and body, assertive and yet uncertain of her gifts.

Playwright Todd moves these characters between the realm of the physical and that of the spiritual.  We do not know whether Ariel is a mere fevered imagining for Sycorax or a familiar spirit with powers.  The rabble of Algiers burn Clare as a witch but Clare continues as a living presence in the life and misfortunes of Sycorax.

In Todd’s story the grateful governor of Algiers commissions a full-size onyx statue of Sycorax.  It’s a handy symbol and a vivid image but highly unlikely, given the severe Koranic prohibition of portraits and representational images. (Curiously,the ban doesn’t apply to puppetry, and shadow puppetry is a tradition in the Arabic Middle East.)  Swallowing hard and indulging the author, one might imagine that the clueless governor’s commission of a statue was a last, unacceptable folly that drove the crowds to fury.

By Weird Sister tradition, women perform all roles, including sailors who are saltier dogs than you’ll ever find in Shakespeare.  Those navvies circle Sycorax in her circle on deck as she glowers at them.  One tells a long, grotesque tall tale about a man whose private parts were witched away.  Another turns away from the audience and mimes urinating in a corner.

We witness as Sycorax confines Ariel in a cloven pine, a scene that’s deftly conceived, beautifully directed and rich with a symbolism that the playwright is perceptive and delicate enough not to comment upon.

The final scene shows Caliban, young and full of hope, recounting a lengthy mythic tale of his ancestors and himself to a worshipful Miranda (Rachel Florence Briles).  She huddles at his side in hypnotised adoration, eyes fastened upon him, hands brushing his side, her legs posed upon his.   Caliban’s attention is upward, toward the moon overhead.   He  reaches the moment of apotheosis in his tale just as Vicky Yoder as Prospero materializes in the depth of the stage and stops to take in the scene.

Todd’s language is a rich prose.  Some of Ariel’s incantatory passages have the rhythm of verse.

The Weird Sisters have no fixed venue, and this year they chose to use a new performance space.  The Gemini Playhouse is a tidy, new-painted studio at the back of a single-story complex of offices and workspaces at 5214 Burleson Road, south of 71/Ben White Boulevard and east of I-35. Driving east, you’ll take the Montopolis exit, then right immediately onto Chapman and left onto Burleson.  It’s on the north side of the road, just past a sizable tree and back behind the now-closed workshop of Camino Azul Custom Tattoo.  They’re friendly folk.  They’ll welcome you, take your voluntary contribution and provide you with refreshments and an evening of thought and entertainment.

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