nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
May 5, 2011
Director David Herskovits and the design wizards of Target Margin (lighting designer Lenore Doxsee, scenic designer David Birn, costume designer Carol Bailey, and sound designer Kate Marvin) have conceptualized a visually gorgeous production of The Tempest that uses the mainstage space at HERE in a strikingly unusual way. But despite a handful of very strong performances, somehow The Tempest’s usual magic doesn’t strike; the show is always interesting to look at but not always completely engaging in its storytelling.
For those not familiar with the play, the three subplots all take place on a mysterious island. Many years ago, Prospero, duke of Milan, was deposed by his treacherous brother; escaping with only his baby daughter, Miranda, Prospero reached an island inhabited only by spirits and the bastard son of a witch, the not-quite-human Caliban. Prospero, a magician, freed the spirit Ariel from that witch, and enslaved Caliban, and the four have lived on the island ever since.
Now, that treacherous brother, Antonio, is on a ship passing by the island, along with Alonso, the king of Naples (who collaborated with Antonio in deposing his brother); Alonso’s son, Ferdinand; and an array of other nobles and servants. Conjuring up a storm at sea, Prospero forces the boat to land on his island, and uses his magic to separate the crew. In one plot, he draws Ferdinand to meet Miranda, and the two fall instantly in love. In another, Caliban meets two scheming and drunken members of the ship’s crew, Stephano and Trinculo, and the three concoct an absurd plot to overthrow Prospero and rule the isle. In the third, while Alonso grieves for the son he believes drowned, his brother, Sebastian, and Antonio conspire to kill Alonso so Sebastian can be king.
In the end, Prospero brings everyone together, reunites father and son, renounces his magic, and departs the island to reclaim his dukedom and see Ferdinand and Miranda wed, freeing Ariel and Caliban.
The visual conceit here has to do with theatrical conventions. When the audience enters, they sit in two tiers and on three sides of a rustic-looking wooden stage; the space behind the seating and behind the stage is open, showing props tables, actors moving around backstage, etc. The play’s first scene—the shipwreck—is done in stripped-down modern dress and almost over-casual acting style.
But once we arrive on Prospero’s island, everything changes. Trompe l’oeil backdrops painted to look like a Victorian theater snap down, not just surrounding the stage but behind the audience, converting the playing space into an intimate jewel box of a proscenium space. Costumes change from shorts and sweatpants to brightly colored Renaissance doublets and hose on the noblemen, and fairy-light-studded gauze (in a perhaps over-literal but nonetheless charming touch) for Ariel. The performances become stylized in an entirely different idiom, down to physical postures, reminiscent of nineteenth-century melodrama. Prospero’s magic is very much stage magic; this may not be a stunningly new interpretation, but it’s realized thoughtfully and elegantly here.
And some of the performances are very strong, often making provocative use of cross-gender and cross-racial casting. Mary Neufeld makes Caliban earthy but not evil; Meg MacCary and J.H. Smith III have a marvelous time with the goofiness of Stephano and Trinculo. Nana Mensah’s Ariel mixes sweetness with gravity in a way that grounds the character beautifully and Hubert Point-Du Jour’s Ferdinand is charmingly innocent and sincere.
So why does the whole thing add up to less than the sum of its parts? Partly, I think, because in trying to pare the play down to an intermissionless 100 minutes, they’ve ended up galloping through all three of the stories that comprise the plot—but often without changing the internal pacing in the scenes and sections that remain. So there’s a strange hurry up/slow down rhythm. This also means that the characters lose a lot of their richness and become more like the melodramatic stock characters whose style the play sometimes echoes. This may have been an entirely intentional choice, but not, to my mind, a particularly successful one.
It’s too bad, because the moments when everything comes together are wonderful, visually and in language, especially in the songs—each of which was composed specially for the production, and each of which is played on a different set of instruments, from an antique music box to a ukulele to (I think) a viola de gamba. But somehow the core of the piece feels a little hollow.