The first thing one notices on entering the Delacorte Theatre is how empty the large stage looks. In Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design, except for a tiny desk on the right and a small pile of rocks on the left, the playing area is simply a large open expanse that is backed by scaffolding which offers a kind of balcony or catwalk and in front of which are hung curtains or screens. On this is projected dark, churning seascapes in streaming video. As the setting for the play is an island, this is initially attractive but as it continues throughout the play, it becomes both distracting and superfluous. The costumes by Emily Rebholz in black and white are also devoid of color. David Lander’s lighting occasionally turns the stage blue, green or red, but this comes as an intrusion to the rest of the concept of the production. Along with the lack of magic until almost the end of this long play, it appears as if Greif’s interpretation of the play were simply to keep things spare and unadorned. Unfortunately, this tale which calls out for enchantment and sleight of hand is not the play to do this with.
For those who did not read The Tempest in school or see it on stage before, it concerns Prospero, formerly Duke of Milan, who was overthrown by his ruthless brother Antonio 12 years before and set adrift with his three year old daughter Miranda. His faithful councilor Gonzalo arranged for Prospero to have his favorite books on board. Landing on an unnamed island somewhere in the Mediterranean, Prospero has become a wizard after learning the magic in his books and has for helpers the spirit Ariel who he has freed from the cruel witch Sycorax and the uncivilized monster Caliban whose mother Sycorax ruled the island previously. When the play begins with Miranda now 15, Prospero causes a tempest which shipwrecks the bark of his brother Antonio (the current Duke of Milan), Alonso (King of Naples), his brother Sebastian, and Alonso’s son and heir Ferdinand, returning from a wedding in Tunis.
Ferdinand and his father Alonso are separated by Prospero’s magic and each believes the other to be dead. Meeting the beautiful Miranda (who has never seen a man other than her father and Caliban), she and Ferdinand fall instantly in love. Prospero sets him a series of difficult tasks to gauge his worth. Elsewhere on the island, Antonio and Sebastian plot to kill Alonso so that Sebastian can become king, but Prospero’s servant Ariel prevents this from happening. In a third location, Trinculo, the King’s Jester, and Stephano, the King’s steward who likes his wine, discover Caliban who tells them his tyrannical master Prospero has many treasures on the island. The three then plot to overthrow Prospero. Eventually, all are brought together, Prospero forgives his brother who restores his kingdom to him, and all plan to leave for Naples now that the storm has abated.
Along with the sparseness of the set and the lack of magic, the acting is mainly very flat and nondescript. When at the beginning of the play Waterston’s Prospero tells his daughter for the first time the story of how they ended up on this island, he sounds angry and enraged though he has had 12 years to come to terms with his expulsion, and knows his brother’s fate is now in his hands. The actor uses a hesitant, halting delivery which breaks up the lines strangely, and moves awkwardly and jerkily, whether from dramatic choice or medical illness is unknown. His wizard’s cape looks more like a prayer shawl than anything that could be used to raise magic and this also imparts a rather faulty and bizarre interpretation. Francesca Carpanini as Miranda and Rodney Richardson as Ferdinand, both making their professional New York stage debuts, are pleasant but innocuous and bland.
More eccentric and unconventional are the Ariel of Chris Perfetti and the Caliban of Louis Cancelmi. Dressed by Rebholtz in leather harnesses (probably to suggest their roles as servants), both flit about the stage like college kids on a spring recess. While Perfetti behaves as though he would prefer to be dancing his role, Cancelmi uses a strange voice and intonation to suggest that English is not Caliban’s first language. Though always interesting to watch, he never seems as evil or as monstrous as he is described in the play. Olga Karmansky, Tamika Sonja Lawrence and Laura Shoop make a late second act appearance as the spirits Iris, Ceres and Juno who add a bit of illusion and supernatural but it is too little, too late.
Among the royals and courtiers, Charles Parnell as Alonso and Frank Harts as his brother Sebastian are negligible under Greif’s direction. Somewhat better is Bernard White as a fervently honest Gonzalo, while the usually reliable Cotter Smith as Prospero’s evil brother Antonio is given little to do. More interesting are Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Trinculo and Danny Mastrogorgio’s Stephano as the clowns. Unfortunately, these low comic roles do not trigger as much laughter as their antics should or the much needed comic relief. Throughout the play, Arthur Solari plays live percussion which both distractingly draws attention to itself and fails to make the proceedings appear to be happening on a magical island.
While the diction is excellent as is the sound design by Acme Sound Partners and Jason Crystal, this uninspired production of The Tempest has to be considered a failure on several levels. This is particularly disappointing after the many truly memorable productions of Shakespeare in the Park in recent years which have taken imaginative approaches which have paid off.
The Tempest (through July 5, 2015)
Shakespeare in the Park
The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at 81 Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan
Free tickets distributed at Noon at the Delacorte Box Office to those on prior line or by lottery at http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission