The post-Sandy productions of The Tempest are rolling into the low-lying streets of downtown. La MaMa’s staging the play three different times this fall. Director Karin Coonrod frames the first production:
At the edge of time and space the TEMPEST is set against a rising tide of awareness….The TEMPEST takes us backwards and forwards, but its urgency is now.
My favorite part of this show was Liz Swados’s gorgeous original music, played unobtrusively by a trio near the back of the stage. (“Back” might not be quite right for this unconventional space — but they were unobtrusive, anyway.) Feeding off the ethereal sounds, the production expanded into song often. Familiar numbers like Ariel’s “Full fathom five” and Stephano’s scurvy tune were given new life. Song also burst out from less expected moments: Gonzalo’s “plantation of the isle” speech, with its extended quotations from Montaigne, was a show-stopper. Miranda crooned her “brave new world” line near the play’s end, to everyone’s surprise and delight. That’s one way to deal with a cliche! Trinculo, played by the wonderfully funny Liz Wiscan, delivered almost her entire part in a fantastic jazz-rap hybrid voice. “Yond same black cloud, yond huge one,” she taunted, “looks like a foul bombard that would shed his liquor!” Deal with that, storm!
Among the performers, the best bits were in the comic sub-plot. I’m a longtime fan of Tony Torn, the actor who played Stephano and who’s married to my St John’s colleague Lee Ann Brown. He rocked his part. Asking the band to strike up “Nobody Cares for Kate” when he first tottered onto the stage, Torn staggered and danced through the play with manic energy. The drunken butler shadows Prospero the magus, and the play’s structure insists that neither figure’s rule is as complete as either might wish. Torn’s Stephano managed to be both hilarious and touching, a drunk who seeks the orderliness that he can’t, finally, put his finger on. He and Wiscan’s Trinculo occupied the boozy, high-spirited heart of the show.
Slate Holmgren’s Caliban seemed a little shrill in his first scene, but blossomed during the drunken rebellion with Torn’s Stephano. Perhaps joyous servitude is more fun to play than bitter rage?
The production played with racial and gender tropes in casting the Italian aristocrats. Prospero, his daughter, and his brother were all of African descent, and while all the other castaways except Gonzalo were played by white men, part of the costume for every Italian aristocrat was white high heels. When Prospero re-dressed himself as “sometime Milan,” he mimed his pain on returning to civilized (and feminized) footwear. Every third thought would be his grave, but he looked as if he’d spare some bad words for his shoemaker.
Joseph Harrington, a teenage ballet star who played the lead in Billy Elliot on Broadway from 2010-2012, stomped, twirled, and danced Ariel’s way across the stage in combat boots. Miriam Hyman’s Miranda out-emoted Harrington’s Ariel, but the pair made an engaging combination, surrounding Reg Cathey’s Prospero with deep emotionalism and balletic flair.
It’s getting hard, these days, to play Prospero. Our sympathies flow to wronged Caliban and tearful Miranda. Ariel, Gonzalo, and even proud Antonio — played here with calm charisma by Earl Baker, Jr. — compel respect and fascination. But the wizard himself, with his impatience, paranoia, and fantasies of control, has become something of a problem.
Cathey didn’t help himself the night I saw the show, sometimes adding more feet than his verses would bear (“Dark backward and and the abysm of time”?). He leaned on his massive staff early and late, and in general didn’t match the other players’ emotional availability.
But maybe if I get back to the Ellen Stewart Theatre before Nov 2, he’ll do better. It was only a preview last Friday.
I’m looking forward to the other two Tempests in this trio also: a Korean version by the Mokwha Reparatory Company in November and Motus Theatre’s Nella Tempesta, which mashes up Shakespeare with Aldous Huxley, William Gibson, and Aime Cesaire, in December.