Sycorax, Cyber Queen of Qamara
Written by Fengar Gael
Directed by Joan Kane
Presented by Ego Actus at HERE Arts Center, NYC
November 1-18, 2018
Over time, Caliban, enslaved by the magician Prospero in Shakespeare's final single-authored play, The Tempest, has undergone a transformation for scholars, writers, and theater artists from some sort of fishy monster and sexual assault perpetrator to a representation of the colonized subject, often particularly Afro-Caribbean. In telling the story of Caliban's mother, who appears in The Tempest only through Prospero's none-too-flattering descriptions of her as a bent and ancient crone and a devilish witch, Sycorax, Cyber Queen of Qamara joins a tradition of "writing back" to canonical texts that includes works such as Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which recounts how the Jamaican first wife of Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester came to end her days locked in an attic in England, and Aimé Césaire's A Tempest, which rewrites Shakespeare's play in sympathy with the subjugated islander and inserts Yoruban trickster Eshu into Prospero's stately nuptial masque of Greek goddesses. With Sycorax, playwright Fengar Gael creates a sympathetic backstory for her titular Algerian witch, but she also complicates the straightforward rehabilitation that audiences might expect.
The play opens with present-day Sycorax (Sandra Bargman), now part of the 500-year old sorceress demographic, explaining that she has waited hundreds of years to tell her side of her own story and is now live-streaming it to as close as the internet can get to literally everyone in the world. We watch her younger self (Lauren Capkanis) pour her energies into carving small wooden animals as her religious family pushes her away from reading and towards marriage, while her brother, Rachid (Nick Giedris) is allowed to continue his education. In Algiers, she is set apart not only by her literacy but also by her blue eyes, which put her under suspicion of being a witch -- rightly, of course, but this Sycorax is someone who wants to use her budding skills to remake the world in ways that will help others. She retains that desire to help others even through an unhappy stint as one of the multiple wives of an older man, but she is nevertheless eventually exiled for using magic, despite her magic having helped the very men who exile her and despite her being pregnant.
She lands up, of course on the deserted island on which The Tempest takes place, here identified as Qamara (and widely thought in Shakespeare's play to have been at least partly inspired by the Bermudas). There, she surrounds herself, and eventually Caliban (Michael Pichardo) as well, with a small menagerie that she creates with the help of the pagan god Setebos and her grandmother's cloak, a symbol of female community and power. They all live in pastoral happiness until Sycorax attempts to carve the perfect man from a tree as a companion for her lonely son and a helpmate for both of them. This man turns out to be Ariel (Nick Giedris), and Ariel turns out to be a bit of a problem.
All of this eventually brings us to the arrival of a certain exiled Duke of Milan with his daughter and his boatful of books, but there is another layer to Sycorax as well. She is, after all, the Cyber Queen of Qamara, and the characters who populate the flashbacks are actually fully functioning avatars complete with downloaded memories magically harvested from the past. This adds a dash of Black Mirror to the proceedings as it emerges that Sycorax is treating these avatars as her own USS Callister crew. In doing so, even if her behavior stems from the traumas of her early life, she is reproducing the very oppression and enslavement for which Prospero is criticized. Prospero may be far from a paragon of virtue, but by the end of The Tempest, he at least doles out forgiveness all around, rejoins his family, and renounces his power. Will Sycorax choose such rapprochement?
The unvarnished criticism of gender roles in the earlier part of the play, then, evolves into something more a bit thornier by the end, but its cheeky sense of humor is constant, and it combines that sense of playfulness with an almost storybook aesthetic and feel. Capkanis is spirited as Young Sycorax; Pichardo’s Caliban is suitably wide-eyed; Kelly D. Cooper and Taylor Graves make a great comic double act as a blustering Prospero and vapidly teenaged Miranda; and Giedris, as the singing, rhyming, lustful, resentful, rebellious Ariel, delivers a funny, physical, scene-stealing performance.
Sycorax, Cyber Queen of Qamara and its long-lived protagonist take on issues from patriarchal oppression to self-aware AIs and still leave room for some solid laughs from a semi-anthropomorphic hen (Brianna Fernandez). For anyone who has ever wanted to know more about Shakespeare’s mysterious "blue-eyed hag," Setebos has at long last answered your prayers. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler