nytheatre.com review by Matthew Freeman
September 16, 2008
[Note: A detailed overview of the plot (with spoilers) in available on SparkNotes.]
Shakespeare's meditative final play, The Tempest, is currently receiving a spare and stunning production at Classic Stage Company. Artistic director Brian Kulick summons some of the best work I've seen from his company, fully supported by a definitive portrayal of Prospero by Mandy Patinkin.
A square of sand, framed by a giant floating print of a skyscape, provides most of the visual flair here: there's little in the way of foliage or flowers. There's a clean look to the entire production that eschews all the discussion of nature, and highlights the otherworldliness of the play. Against this stark design is juxtaposed the portrait of a man of rich inner life and deep ambivalence. Patinkin captures beautifully the changeable qualities of Prospero: how he rails mercilessly against his slave Ariel, just before professing his love for her; how he punishes the young Ferdinand, just before giving him his blessing; how he berates his daughter, but swears he would die without her.
The Tempest could just as easily be called "Prospero." He is the prime mover, the teller of the tale, and it is his character that is revealed to us by the play. Bearing this in mind, one could scarcely find a more truthful and melodious conduit for the play than Patinkin. He makes fireworks of exposition, and renders the more well-worn moments (the curtain speech, for example) with rare relish.
The other cast members shine as well, especially Steven Rattazzi and Tony Torn as Stephano and Trinculo, swinging for the fences and hitting mostly home runs. Angel Desai's Ariel is lively and Stark Sands makes much of his role as Ferdinand.
Kulick's staging is at its best during the wedding scene. Here, with mostly voices, gesture, and music (here is one of the few places Patinkin sings, as a part of the company), he creates a marriage ritual that is moving in its directness and simplicity. Instead of bearing down on the audience with external shows of Prospero's "art," he brings only the essential actions to bear, and the effect is like a spell being woven.
If there are missing pieces in this staging, they aren't small: Miranda and Caliban. Nyambi Nyambi's portrayal of Caliban never quite came together for me. It's an energetic performance and, in many ways effective: Kulick and Nyambi resist editorializing on a role that practically invites it. Still, compared to some of the revelatory work elsewhere in this production, this Caliban feels too moderate. He's neither monstrous enough to be a threat, nor human enough to be pitied.
Elisabeth Waterston seems to be playing a different role than Miranda. Obviously an actress of grace and poise, Waterston wears a lovely white dress and behaves as if she were raised in society. Miranda, as written, has never seen a man besides her father and the "mooncalf" Caliban. Kulick's direction and Waterston's portrayal iron Miranda's uniqueness out, leaving only a generic ingénue. Her comic timing in the scenes with Ferdinand is charming, but much of the underlying material goes undisturbed.
These concerns notwithstanding, Patinkin's work elevates the entire production, and he's fully engaged with a fantastic cast. Kulick's instincts lead him ashore safely: The Tempest rarely receives such a clear and powerful staging.