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Theatre Review (NYC): The Tempest

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I don’t think I would be accused of telling tales out of school if I said that the best part of this production is the intermission. When you see what four people can do to a stage in 15 minutes is magic. Real magic. The kind of magic that fills the pages of The Tempest but did not make it to the stage of this production.

The Tempest starts with – you guessed it – a TEMPEST. A big ol’ storm that tosses a bunch of men in impeccable royal garb onto a desert island. We meet them just after the toss, and if we listen really, really carefully we will get that they are surprised to be where they are and wonder why their clothes are not drenching wet. Fine.

Then we meet Miranda (Elisabeth Waterston)and her dad, Prospero (Mandy Patinkin) who, until today, have been the only human inhabitants of the island for years and years, and today is the day that Prospero wants to bring his daughter up to speed on how they got where they are. Prospero, you see, has created the tempest to bring his enemies within reach. And down we sink.

As Prospero, Mandy Patinkin loves the sound of his own voice. He loves it so much that he more or less goes off somewhere accompanied only by that sound and leaves the rest of us sitting in the theatre waiting for him to come back. Patinkin is charming, earnest, and completely self-referential. When he is with the other actors you get the feeling that he is not listening to them. He is just waiting for them to finish talking. There is just not enough room in his quiver for his voice and Shakespeare.

Too bad, because listen to these lines, spoken by Prospero to his daughter, Miranda:

Sit still, and hear the last of our sea-sorrow.
Here in this island we arrived; and here
Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit
Than other princesses can that have more time
For vainer hours and tutors not so careful.

Simple to say, right? Nope. In this production the text gets so lost you hardly know they are speaking English. The entire production is mushy and unkempt. Nobody seems to have a clear idea of the story or why they are telling it.

As Miranda, Waterston gives us the iconic version of a stranded princes – beautiful but with no self-assurance, guileless and dependent. She glides through life as easily as a knife through butter. When she falls in love it is not with the astonishment that there are actually other people on the planet but rather with the zeal of a young girl who was just granted her extra-favorite dessert. As Caliban, the half monster who serves as slave to Prospero, Nyambi Nyambi blusters his way through his lines as though he were swinging a rubber club. The rest of the cast slogs on through, offering just enough oxygen to keep the flame alive but no more.

There are a lot of people who can sit down with you and tell you why The Tempest is an important play. I’m not one of them. I am, however, student enough of Shakespeare to know that his writing is music without the orchestra. If treated kindly, his words will swell full up and take wing into the theatre.

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

(Miranda, Act V, Sc 1)

I think Shakespeare wanted us to feel those lines down to our toes. Instead we walk out of this production feeling parched and a little dulled between the ears.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare; directed by Brian Kulick

WITH: Craig Baldwin (Sebastian), Yusef Bulos (Gonzalo), Angel Desai (Ariel/Ariel as Ceres), Karl Kenzler (Antonio), Nana Mansah (Spirit/Spirit as Juno), Nyambi Nyambi (Caliban), Bhavesh Patel (Boatswain/Spirit/Adrian/ Spirit as Isis), Mandy Patinkin (Prospero), Michael Potts (Alonso), Steven Rattazzi (Stefano), Stark Sands (Ferdinand), Tony Torn (Master of the Ship/Trinculo) and Elisabeth Waterston (Miranda).

Sets by Jian Jung; costumes by Oana Botez-Ban; lighting by Brian Scott; original music and sound by Christian Frederickson; production manager, Travis Walker; production stage manager, Christina Lowe; assistant stage manager, Chandra LaViolette; general manager, Jeff Griffin. Presented by the Classic Stage Company, Brian Kulick, artistic director; Jessica R. Jenen, executive director. At the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, Manhattan; (212) 352-3101. Through Oct. 19. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

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