December 8, 2008
Tempest #12 — More on Ariel

Thinking more about Ariel, and doing some head sketches prior to starting to sculpt — though for him I need to get past the point of face-focused character and see him as a full-bodied creature of action.

In Tempest #2 I expressed the familiar idea that Ariel is a force of nature, an elemental of air and fire, but took this a bit further than most producers have done:
* He has vast power, ranging from the gentlest breeze, the softest glow of the firefly, to tornado and wildfire conflagration. Harnessing his power, holding him captive, as Prospero does, isn’t a once-and-done thing: it’s the struggle of holding a horny German Shepherd straining at the leash. We must see this reflected in each Prospero/Ariel scene, and in Prospero’s preparations for these encounters as well as the physical toll his magical conjurations take on him. As I said before, Prospero’s calling him a “delicate spirit” is like saying ‘Nice doggie, nice doggie,” patting the pit-bull.

* There’s a playfulness in him, a joy of action that has little sense of consequence: the fire dancing merrily as it catches the curtains on fire. Prospero must ask about the welfare of the shipwrecked passengers precisely because he knows there’s a danger that Ariel might have gotten too frisky with them — the amorality of the small child tormenting a bug. There’s a bond with the Puck of Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Ariel is of vastly different magnitude than the prank-playing trickster. He joys in the action, in the doing.
* Paradoxically, Shakespeare sees in this “natural” force a core morality. In terrorizing the villains in guise of a harpy or in the masque’s hymns to chastity, he’s expressing Prospero’s values. And yet he did refuse Sycorax’ “earthy and abhorr’d commands” — almost as if the bad guy’s atom bombs refused his command to explode — and his empathy with those he’s tormented moves Prospero deeply. It’s akin to the disruption in the natural world at disorder in the realm of mankind that brings on the storm in Lear: ultimately a divine principle rules.
* His essence is transformation. Like the multiple states of matter, he has no single form: he’s a flash of fire, he’s a human, he’s a sprite, he’s a nymph, he’s a harpy, he’s music. Yes, for theatrical purposes we do have to anchor him in a form we recognize as “Ariel” — he can’t be just a bunch of digital flickers — but the fluidity is part of his power.

* This fluidity, and the music that’s a part of it, gives a kind of hermaphroditic feel to the character. Puck seems pre-adolescent; Ariel’s gender has no specific function, yet there’s a powerful sexuality in his action, his sensual language, his emotion. He’s often been played as a woman or as a blond, gay-poster-boy type. But I’m thinking maybe his core being is older, a spirit that may take youthful forms but who is, in his eyes, as old, as fecund, and as polymorphous as the island itself. He is the island.
Right now I’m thinking about designing Ariel in perhaps three distinct forms, maybe more. Need to find a unity so they’re all recognizable. Some inspiration from the shamanic paintings of Susan Seddon Boulet in the combination of animal and human forms, multiplicity of eyes & faces. Possibility of Ariel having multiple voices, or a prime voice with others melding in periodic unison, or a prime voice with normal pitch variation and a second voice articulated but as a bass drone. Essential that he use language beautifully, and yet a sense that language itself is foreign to him.
It’s easy, with the resources of puppetry, to tart up the role with effects. And it’s hard to create an “alien” sense without just getting goofy: the space aliens of the old Star Trek series always seemed as if they all had some strange disease of the forehead and had just come from voice & diction class. We need always to come back to what supports the scenic dynamics and the reality of the human characters within this magical — i.e. transformative — realm.