By William Shakespeare; Music by Elizabeth Swados; Directed by Karin Coonrod
Presented by La MaMa
Off Broadway, Classic Play
Runs through 11.2.14
The Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th St.
by Keith Paul Medelis on 10.30.14
Reg E. Cathy and the cast of Tempest.
BOTTOM LINE: An amazing, immersive start to a hurried and confusing production of Tempest.
As I write more and more of these reviews, I eagerly anticipate the next great thing—the show I can rave about, recommend to everyone, and become inspired by as an artist myself. And the first moments of Karin Coonrod's Tempest propelled me forward with anticipation. The cast slowly crosses Riccardo Hernandez’s expertly designed stage (the deepest one in New York) clothed in Oana Botez’s gorgeous Renaissance costume homages. We hear their footfalls as they command our attention down this runway.
An actor steps forward toward a large ball suspended like a Newton’s Cradle from the ceiling. The moment the ball is pushed it glows with starry galaxy perfection on every surface the light touches. The shipwreck begins entirely in soundscape from the chorus, washing us with the terror of a tossing sea in a tempest.
From here the story may be familiar to you. Prospero has conjured this storm to bring Antonio and the court of Alonso to the shores of his island where he, his daughter Miranda, spirit Ariel, and slave Caliban reside. The storm scatters the crew about the island. Ferdinand alone meets Miranda and falls Shakesperean-ly in love at first sight. In another part of the island, Stephano and Trinculo meet Caliban who joins forces with them to run wild. The King of Naples, Alonso, and the rest of the court land elsewhere where trouble brews over a planned murder of the king by Antonio and Sebastian. By the end, Ferdinand and Miranda are married, Antonio and Sebastian are forgiven, and Prospero is revealed as the rightful Duke of Milan, so he gives up his sorcery powers and Ariel and Caliban are freed.
And while that story is all here, it races by at an epic pace with some seemingly massive cuts. Our first rather lengthy exposition scene with Miranda (played wonderfully by Miriam A. Hyman) and Prospero (Reg E. Cathey) flies by so quickly that I’m glad I know the play well. Strangely, it’s Coonrad’s Trinculo and Stephano that really stand out here (Liz Wisan and Tony Torn respectively) as their scenes occupy much of the traffic of the stage. It’s worth noting that this time is indeed enjoyably spent with solid comedic work happening with them, rounded out by Slate Holmgren’s Caliban.
This is a production that surrounds you with musical soundscapes from Elizabeth Swados, and through Coonrad's direction, places much of the action on the second level. Sadly a good deal of this, including Prospero’s dream speech, isn’t viewable from many of the seats. I was left a bit disappointed by Ariel (Joseph Harrington) who was not well assisted by a sound system that obscured many important speeches and some vigorous, cross-genre movement work.
Botez's costumes feature high-heeled shoes for all in the court, an homage to the period style for sure. It becomes an odd storytelling device when Prospero dons the shoes after his position is restored since he’s left to confront the heels through the final speeches. It’s certainly the first high-heeled Prospero I’ve seen. And this Tempest becomes a story that is less about the releasing of magic and freedom from the ties that bind and more about the king's restored power on an uneasy, high-heeled platform. I longed for the beautifully powerful opening moments to be the focus and not these confusing other elements.
At the very end I was once again pulled back. Coonrad leaves us with massive fans dispersing the pages of the script around the stage to release even Shakespeare’s words from their binding. It’s the “gentle breath of yours my sails / must fill, or else my project fails.” Finally, a column of light and final intake of breath from the chorus beaconed us out into the lobby and ultimately the streets of our daily lives again. This is the coming of something new, scary, and unknown.
(Tempest plays at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre through November 2, 2014. Remaining performances are Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sunday at 4 PM. Tickets are $40, $30 for students/seniors, and are available at ovationtix.com or by calling 646.430.5374. For more information visit lamama.org)