Feliz Dia McDonaldOur very own Feliz Dia McDonald has been awarded a 2010 B. Iden Payne Award for actress in a supporting role for her portrayal of the spirit Ariel in our summer production of Susan Gayle Todd’s Sycorax. This is McDonald’s second nomination, and a first for the Weird Sisters. We are genuinely proud of her and her work with us; she took Ariel to new heights (quite literally) and was a pleasure to work with.

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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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