Boundless as the Sea
nytheatre.com review by Liz Kimberlin
June 11, 2005
The Tempest is about Prospero, a banished duke-turned-enchanter who, with his beautiful young daughter Miranda, continues to inhabit the “deserted” island where they washed up after a shipwreck a dozen years prior. When a new ship bearing those who wronged him sails within his territory, Prospero conjures a “tempest,” a magical and deceptive storm that ultimately puts all the players together on the island playing field—but, of course, separated and strategically placed so that Prospero can manipulate them like chess pieces. Among them are Alonso, King of Naples, who conspired with fellow castaway Antonio (Prospero’s brother) to get rid of Prospero 12 years ago, and Alonso’s beloved, innocent and honorable son Ferdinand. Ferdinand, cut off from all the others and believing himself to be the only survivor, comes upon Miranda, who has never seen another human, apart from her father. They immediately fall wildly in love, much to Prospero’s delight and convenience. As the “visitors” are about to discover, there lurk on the island many more presences than are dreamt of in a mere mortal’s philosophy—including Ariel, a spirit indentured to Prospero and visible only to him (and us), and Caliban, a misshapen half-demon man-beast, who hates and fears master Prospero but yearns for Miranda.
On the day that I attended the performance in the lovely old West Bank Presbyterian Church at Amsterdam and West 86th Street, it was a hot, muggy Saturday afternoon. The altar has been stripped bare, and there's an eerie, almost too-quiet atmosphere in the church. Apropos to the opening sequence of The Tempest, it was about to rain and thunderstorm outside at any moment. Naturally, the play got started with a jolt—the sound of the storm and ocean waves crashing.
Unfortunately, for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the play, Shakespeare’s text was pretty much garbled and incomprehensible. Initially I attributed this to the storm scene’s sound effects being too loud; but then the inaudibility continued well into the next and all-important introduction of Prospero, played by Philip Bartolf, and Miranda, adeptly played by the lovely Cotton Wright. We are supposed to learn here through Prospero’s exposition (somewhat long-winded and complicated even for Shakespeare) about how he and Miranda ended up on the island, but I mostly couldn’t understand a word Bartolf said. It seemed as if he was speaking really quickly just to get an irksome speech over with sooner. Also his voice didn’t project well until much later in the play. I was sitting third pew from the front, and I strained to hear him.
But the production really came to life with the entrance of the savage, groveling half-creature Caliban, played with great charisma and agility by Ryan Patrick Ervin, who literally comes crawling out of nowhere. Ferdinand is played by another fine actor, Bradley Thomason. He and Wright make a very attractive couple, and Thomason is very elegant and articulate in all his other scenes. The reigning King of Naples, Alonso, is played by veteran actor Robert O’Melia. Also part of Alonso’s entourage are his young brother, Sebastian, played to preppie-boy perfection by Tim Scott, and Antonio, Prospero’s opportunistic brother who wrongly assumed the dukedom of Milan with Prospero’s banishment.
Sebastian and Antonio hang back from the ministrations to the King of Naples to make snarky, petty, smart-ass remarks about their companions. Their easy vulture-of-a-feather camaraderie became for me a fascinating highlight of the play. When Alonso and his attendants fall under Ariel’s sleep charm, Sebastian and Antonio are mysteriously unaffected. The more ruthless of the two, Antonio—in a deliciously wicked performance by Dwayne Thomas—convinces weak-willed but ambitious Sebastian to help him kill Alonso and crew as they sleep. But their dire deed is foiled not a moment too soon by Prospero’s magical intervention.
The play truly becomes a comedy with the entrance of befuddled jester Trinculo, played by the fabulously dweeby Tom Farrell, who takes flakiness to new heights as he staggers whimpering and disoriented about the beach. When he stumbles upon Caliban, who is fleeing in terror from Prospero’s threats of punishment, Trinculo somehow mistakes him for a very big fish—or a man—or a man who’s also a fish and possibly dead. Finally, enter the butler Stephano (played by the production’s director Marc Silberschatz), who is too drunk even to be scared of being lost and alone on a possibly deserted island, but drags his wine cask around with him to ensure his continued anesthesia just in case. Whereas Antonio and Sebastian feel like malicious, smarter versions of Hope and Crosby, Trinculo and Stephano here are Bill and Ted, and they play it to the hilt.
I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that on the performance I saw there were a few distractions that had little to do with the play being presented. There is liberal use of music in the production, which is kind of nice, but more often than not the volume was too high and overwhelmed the action on the stage. I was very aware of actors moving back and forth along the back of the balcony throughout the play as they went to the dressing room or their next stage position; I often found my eye going up to them rather than focusing on the scene being played. Similarly, in one of the final scenes, at the entrances of goddesses Iris and Ceres, my attention was pulled away by how the banners were cascading down from the balcony. Perhaps Silberschatz might consider integrating this moment into the scene with hooded attendants to the goddesses rather than hazard the clunkiness of someone hidden behind the rails and struggling to manage the banner, as was happening.
I think Silberschatz has the right idea. His production, overall, is good-looking and well staged, with inspired use of the church space (especially in suggesting the bough of a ship) and some better-than-average performances. Once the technical issues are resolved, the production should have a much more polished and professional feel to it.