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.

Read More...