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Prospero in Dixie

Shakespeare's valedictory has been set in many exotic locales over the centuries; why not the antebellum South, with Peter Fonda brave in the New World?

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When Harold Bloom finally gets around to The Tempest in his new book on Shakespeare, his gorge has risen to the highest of dudgeons. While it's perfectly clear to Bloom that Prospero is an "anti-Faust," and The Tempest is Will's "final transcending of Marlowe," contemporary "bespoilers" of this "visionary comedy" are driven entirely by ideology. In the worst instance, "Caliban, a poignant but cowardly (and murderous) half-human creature (his father a sea devil, whether fish or amphibian), has become an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter. This is not even a weak misreading; anyone who arrives at that view is simply not interested in reading the play at all. Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, nouveau historicists -- the usual suspects -- know their causes but not Shakespeare's plays."

I'm not here to pick a fight with Bloom. But messing with Shakespeare in general has a long and lively tradition of its own, from Akira Kurosawa to Jane Smiley to Al Pacino. And messing with The Tempest in particular gave us a superior Hollywood western (Yellow Sky, with Anne Baxter as a ghost-town Miranda), a superior science-fiction film (Forbidden Planet, in which Ariel was a robot), and John Cassavetes stranded on a Greek Island (Tempest). The Tempest also haunts the pages of Toni Morrison's Tar Baby and got one of its most memorable stagings, as a play by Earl the Pearl Shakespeare, on a basketball court in a ghetto in John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire. Tiresome as it may be for Bloom to visit yet another contested site in postcolonial studies, is it so surprising that African-Caribbeans, force-fed English literature as schoolboys, should use The Tempest to think about islands, language, and master-slave relationships? "You taught me language; and my profit on 't / Is, I know how to curse: the red plague rid you, / For learning me your language!"

Nor am I even here to pick a fight with NBC, the network that's already blamed Dostoevsky and the American public for the ratings failure of its ludicrous TV-movie version of Crime and Punishment, which disaster doubtless accounts for the fainthearted postponement of its not quite so ludicrous production of The Tempest from last month's sweeps to this week's doldrums (Sunday, December 13; 9 to 11 p.m.). So what if they omit Shakespeare's language? Haven't they added an American Civil War? Anyway, do we really and truly need, before our revels now are ended, a great globe or a solemn temple, the past as prologue or a brave new world, strange bedfellows and dumb discourse and such stuff as dreams are made on, so long as we have special effects from the folks who gave us Merlin?

As Gideon Prosper, Peter Fonda gives good drench. Having abandoned the running of his antebellum slave plantation to his evil younger brother Anthony (John Glover), this bearded Prosper occupies himself, instead, studying magic with the African sorceress Ezeli (Donzaleigh Abernathy). Several lynchings later, he will have to use his Magus powers to save the life of Ezeli's uppity son Ariel (Harold Perrineau Jr.), after which, with his daughter Miranda (Katherine Heigl), they must flee into the Mississippi bayou, where they build a terrific tree house on territory confiscated from the brutish amphibian Gator Man (John Pyper-Ferguson). Twelve years later finds them in the middle of the Civil War. Having heard about the Emancipation Proclamation and Dred Scott, Ariel is getting restless -- especially when he's a raven sent aloft by Prosper on aerial reconnaissance. And Miranda, having grown up nubile, is attracting the wrong sort of attention from Gator Man. And a wounded Union soldier (Eddie Mills) washes up at the tree house. And in his magic pool, Prosper sees the worst.

When he wants to, Prosper can conjure phantom regiments. When he needs it, there's the sort of weather that discouraged dinosaurs. On cue, the bayou is a snake pit. I wish I could believe in Fonda in a rage, but he looks as if he'd really rather be keeping bees. I wish Heigl's Miranda had half the spunk of Abernathy's Ezeli, but she's more of a moon calf. Perrineau, so fine in Oz, gives us an Ariel of whom Bloom's African-Caribbean ideologues would probably approve. Can't they find a role for Glover in which he need not hyperventilate?

Maybe because the screenwriter is Jim Henerson (Attica, The Rape of Richard Beck, The Fire Next Time) and the director-executive producer is Jack Bender (Northern Exposure, The Paper Chase), this Tempest actually does have mildly interesting things to say about loyalty and freedom, about servitude and patriarchy, about reconciliation and even separation anxiety. It is also a wholly original explanation of the Battle of Vicksburg: General Ulysses S. Grant was lucky enough to have Shakespeare on his hirsute side (if not Caliban, who was probably busy down in Haiti wondering whether the French Revolution applied to black people).


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