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Theatre in Review: The Tempest (Shakespeare in the Park/Delacorte Theater)

Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Louis Cancelmi, Danny Mastrogiorgio. Photo: Joan Marcus

Michael Greif's production of The Tempest begins with an imaginatively staged shipwreck. Choreographed movement, thundering sound effects, banners, and a toy ship -- hoisted, hanging precariously in the balance -- all combine to persuasively create the feeling of a vessel lost to the forces of nature. Once on dry land, however, this Tempest feels strangely marooned, thanks to a series of hit-or-miss casting and design choices.

This is not to say that there aren't a number of moments when the director connects with the universe of emotions contained in Shakespeare's most enchanted tale. Prospero, the play's chief sorcerer, by way of assuring his daughter Miranda that the storm he has conjured will not cause harm, says, "I have done nothing but in care of thee," and, suddenly, you grasp the profundity of a father-daughter relationship that has developed largely in isolation. There is a delightful moment when Ferdinand, the shipwrecked son of Prospero's enemy, kisses Miranda and executes a somersault, simply for the joy of it. In an uncommonly hilarious rendering of the play's comic subplot, Trinculo, the jester, futilely tries to make beautiful music by blowing industriously into a jug of liquor. There are at least two bravura moments: when Prospero, having produced an elaborate masque to celebrate Miranda's union with Ferdinand, makes it vanish with a furious wave of his arms, and, at the end of the first half, when characters from all three plot lines converge on stage, unbeknownst to each other.

The production is plagued by fundamental problems, however, beginning with Riccardo Hernandez's set: a shiny black deck with an arrangement of black boulders downstage right, and, at center stage, a black metal structure divided into three portals with a catwalk on top. Upstage of this is a set of scrims on which are printed images of green-tinted ocean waves. It is a spare, abstract concept, surprisingly devoid of the mystery and magic that the play demands. The portals are lined in what I believe is color-changing LED tape; much of David Lander's lighting design is keyed off of those, resulting in some scenes being marred by unsightly orange and acid-green washes.

Returning to the role of Prospero, which he first played in the Delacorte 41 (!) years ago, Sam Waterston is a smaller-than-life presence in a role that demands the grandest of manners. His Prospero lacks the necessary grandeur; it's hard to believe that he has mastered the very elements or that he has an enormous grievance to settle. (He has been deposed, exiled, and marginalized, and now he has in his grasp all of those who conspired against him.) Instead, he comes off as an old fussbudget, cranky where he should be commanding and more adept at counseling young lovers than arranging the fates of all who trespass in his domain. We should feel that everything that happens in the play is subject to his not-always-transparent whims. Yet when Waterston is offstage, it's rather easy to forget about him altogether.

In addition, Francesca Carpanini is an oddly mature Miranda, trying to suggest the character's innocence with overly tremulous line readings that quickly become tiresome. And Prospero's shipwrecked enemies -- played by Charles Parnell, Frank Harts, Cotter Smith, and Bernard White -- are a notably nondescript bunch, although, in a production in which vocal strain is all too evident, Parnell stands out for his mastery of the play's verse. Still, none of these characters come alive, and, as they turn on each other, mirroring their treachery against Prospero, their internecine intrigues never compel.

There are several bright spots in the cast: Chris Perfetti, pale, slender, and hairless, is the airiest of Ariels, making a stark contrast with Louis Cancelmi's Caliban, with his muscled torso, brutal manner, and halting way of speaking. (I know that both characters are Prospero's slaves, but that doesn't explain why the costume designer, Emily Rebholz, has fitted them both with the kind of leather harnesses that suggest bondage of a different sort, as practiced in certain bars on the West Side below 14th Street.) Rodney Richardson's Ferdinand transitions pleasingly from lost boy to ardent lover to full manhood as he prepares to take Miranda as his wife. Once again, Jesse Tyler Ferguson enlivens a Delacorte production, this time as Trinculo, aided by the equally droll Danny Mastrogiorgio as Stephano, the drunken butler. Their pie-eyed roughhousing with Caliban, who, under the influence, has mistaken them for powerful personages, provides plenty of much-needed diversion.

The action is driven by Michael Friedman's score and Matt Tierney's soundscape, the latter of which involves lengthy live percussion sequences -- all of which may constitute too much of a good thing. These elements provide constant underscoring, in the manner of film music, and, for once, the team at Acme Sound Partners, here joined by Jason Crystal, is sometimes hard-pressed to make the actors intelligible. Rebholz's costumes also include nicely tailored military uniforms, a gown for Miranda right out of The Princess Diaries, and a shawl for Prospero, decorated with a zodiac motif, that looks like it was lifted from Hogwarts.

The best moment in this Tempest comes when Prospero, having cleared the stage, delivers a cogent and moving version of what is arguably the play's most famous speech ("Our revels now are ended."). Here and in Prospero's epilogue ("Now my charms are all o'erthrown...") he seems to speak simply and from the heart and, for once, it is riveting. In a production that often seems to be searching for a style and point of view, the presence of a great actor in his element proves to be the most magical component of all. -- David Barbour


(17 June 2015)

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