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Theatre in Review: The Tempest (The Public Theater)/Caroline's Kitchen (59E59)

Top: Jasai Chase-Owens, Sam Morales. Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Caroline Langrishe, Jasmyn Banks, James Sutton, Tom England. Photo: Sam Taylor.

The isle is definitely full of noises in Laurie Woolery's production of William Shakespeare's autumnal masterpiece. It is part of the Public's Mobile Unit, a program that brings Shakespeare to community centers, correctional facilities, and public libraries around the five boroughs. (Performances at the Public are free.) These are tab versions, cut to ninety minutes, and featuring, in this case, an ensemble of nine actors, most of whom take on as many as four roles. The Mobile Unit surely brings joy to disenfranchised audiences, and more power to it, but, going in, be aware that the productions sometimes skew the texts in certain ways.<> For example, this is a Tempest with the emphasis on rambunctious comedy, most notably in the subplot featuring the scalawags Stephano and Trinculo; shipwrecked on Prospero's island, they encounter the monstrous Caliban, who, given a snootful, joins in their crackbrained plot to take over. Dan Domingues and Reza Salazar are a solid pair of scamps, scheming and feckless in equal measure; Domingues, in particular, has a rascally glint in his eye that contrasts, comically, with Stephano's dimmer perceptions. Christopher Ryan Grant's Caliban is imposing in his early appearances and increasingly amusing as he falls under the spell of John Barleycorn. The walls of the Public's Shiva Theater reverberate with their alarms and excursions.

The production also has a charming pair of young lovers in the Miranda and Ferdinand of Sam Morales and Jasai Chase-Owens. Morales convinces one that Miranda has never before seen other humans (aside from Prospero) and is thrilled at the opportunity; Chase-Owens all but trembles with ardor for the fetching young thing who greets him following his near-death experience in a ship-destroying storm. They provide a grounding counterpart to the drunken carrying-on of the play's clowns. In contrast, Prospero, here reimagined as a kind of earth mother by Myra Lucretia Taylor, is a less forceful presence. Hers is a brisk, businesslike sorceress, constantly bustling about, urging others to do her bidding; it's an interesting approach but you may miss the character's more enigmatic and magisterial qualities. Also, she rushes the verse a bit, occasionally losing its meaning.

Then again, with its fast action, accent on comedy, and percussive score by Michelle J. Rodriguez, this may be a fine way to introduce young persons of your acquaintance to Shakespeare. The set designer, Claire DeLiso, has provided an attractive (and most appropriate) Zodiac-themed stage deck and Wilberth Gonzalez's studded-leather-and-macramé costumes supply their own form of enchantment. (Prospero appears to be dressed in a gown made from sea foam.) Christopher Windom's movement direction is felt in the Ariel of Danaya Esperanza, who moves around the stage like an underwater creature; the play's masque sequence is also effectively staged, with members of the company appearing as hooded avian creatures. A middling effort from the Mobil Unit, this is a Tempest that scants the play's mystery and its insistence on the power of forgiveness in favor of louder-faster-funnier comedy.

However, the noises on Prospero's Island are nothing compared to the clatter unfolding around the island in Caroline's Kitchen. Torben Betts' play is something of a twofer, being both a grating, laughless farce and a failed example of that British theatre favorite, the state-of-the-nation play. The title character is a popular television presenter, host of a cooking show who presents herself as living a dreamily perfect lifestyle. ("The darling of Middle England," as one character sardonically puts it.) In reality, her existence is swiftly achieving train-wreck status. Her marriage to the egotistical, insensitive Mike is struggling to recover from his fling with a sweet young thing; on the other hand, Caroline is carrying on with Graeme, the much-younger contractor hired to make home improvements. Graeme, an ex-footballer, has a full plate of domestic problems, including his wife, Sally, who invades Caroline's kitchen seeking justice and the salvation of her marriage. Also on hand is Leo, Caroline and Mike's son, who is just out of Cambridge and bursting to come out of the closet -- news that neither of his parents wants to hear. Also adding stress is a tabloid photo of Caroline falling drunkenly out of a limo -- a scandal being managed by Amanda, Caroline's snippy, adulterous personal assistant -- and an impending storm of gale proportions.

What with these fraught situations boiling over all at once and each character demanding immediate attention, the play amounts to a portrait of the UK in the Brexit era, a collection of self-absorbed squabbles playing out even as the house threatens to come down around them. The supposedly satirical jokes are pretty crass, however. Caroline and Mike keep referring to Ji-Woo, Leo's unseen Japanese friend, as "Iwo Jima." Mike, who has been golfing, has a face so red he looks like a lobster left in the pot too long. Leo announces his heart has been broken by his ex-boyfriend, Rory, whom Caroline refers to as "that peculiar, mincing Scottish creature." (Leo and Rory had a plan to go to Syria, of all places, to work as volunteers; nobody ever points out that they would have been lucky to escape with their lives.) Mike, complaining about his aging body, says, "I've had problems with my teeth, my ears, my eyes, my back, my hands, my knees, my chest, and even with my anal sphincter muscle, would you believe." Mike, responding to Leo's coming-out announcement, says, bewildered, "You were always such a keen rugby player."

And so it goes, with everyone behaving badly, and, generally, witlessly. Sally gets roaring drunk, everyone keeps going outside and getting drenched for no good reason, Graeme tries to make Caroline run off with him, Amanda throws herself at Graeme, and the roast in Caroline's oven gets burned to a crisp. Oh, and a kitchen knife will be put to use, leading to flesh wounds. If this is Betts' view of his homeland, I think we should all throw our support behind Brexit; who needs this tight little island?

Since all of the characters are one-note nags, there is little that the cast can do, although Caroline Langrishe, as Caroline, has a nice frozen smile, matched to a look of sheer incomprehension that stands her in good stead as the proceedings become increasingly chaotic. Otherwise, the best thing to be said about Alastair Whatley's direction is that it keeps things hustling along. James Perkins' set looks exactly like what you see on the Food Channel, and his costumes are appropriate for the characters. Chris Withers' lighting is okay and Max Pappenheim's sound design creates an exceptionally impressive storm. (Apparently, these characters are responsible for climate change and the country's crumbling infrastructure, too.) In Caroline's Kitchen, the playwright attempts to raise a hue and cry, but all he succeeds in doing is adding to the noise. --David Barbour

(6 May 2019)

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