A few months ago, I'd made the suggestion to myself that perhaps it was time to retire Shakespeare, the reason being that I'd had my fill of viewing too many incompetent and uninspired productions in the last year. While the first half of Classic Stage Company's "The Tempest" is imaginative and competent, the second act is absolutely sublime.
The main set piece, designed by Jian Jung, is a square piece of stretched out cloth with a painting of the sky. It's operated by four stage hands who are reorienting it during the course of the show to indicate change of scene, as well as symbolize very subtle ideas about character and theme. The first half of the play has a square of sand representing the beach, and the back wall is simply used for levels. The set is simple, and along with Brian H. Scott's lighting, a sparse set becomes quite effective in conveying and wrapping us up in the story.
A play from Shakespeare's late period, "The Tempest" is a fantasy that includes spirits, magic, and much comedy but always warns of the possibility for tragedy. It follows the story of Prospero, an exiled duke, and Miranda, his daughter who have spent years on a semi-deserted island. As chance would have it, the royal party responsible for the injustice enacted on this man in exile are passing his island. Opportunities for confrontation and restitution are at hand. It's filled with all of the Shakespearian archetypes one comes to expect from Shakespeare. The clowns, the lovers, the spirits, the nobleman, the loyal servant, the traitor, and on and on.
Stefano the king's butler and Trinculo the king's jester, as played by Tony Torn and Steven Rattazzi, are hilarious. In the scene where they subjugate the primitive Caliban, the hilarity reaches riotous levels that we forget just how serious and tragic this scene really is. Caliban is played by Nyambi Nyambi, and he takes the primitive and runs with it, drooling and all. Sebastian, as played by Craig Baldwin, has a supercilious wit to it that is very fun to watch. The two lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand, as played by Elisabeth Waterston and Stark Sands, are played with as much earnest as one could want from two lovers. To round out the honorable mentions, Angel Desai plays Ariel the air spirit. She's beautiful and a delight to watch.
Naturally, the role and actor under most scrutiny is Prospero as played by Mandy Patinkin. It may or may not be surprising that this isn't his first time tackling the bard, and I'm happy to say that Mr. Patinkin absolutely steps up to the challenge. As far as the magnitude and the magnanimity of the character goes, this actor is a natural; however, an actor and role of near mythical reputation in the theater world cannot escape the minor criticisms of any audience.
There are plenty of parallels between this spell maker and the role of George Seurat, which he originated in 1984. Certain magical gestures will have the audience members old enough to remember having fits of déjà vu. That isn't to say that Mr. Patinkin cheats or that his work is derivative. Rather, it is to point out just how perfect he is for this role. The real problem occurs when he begins to gesticulate and fritters away his energy and the meaning of the text, most - and perhaps only - noticeable during the challenging expository Shakespearian monologues, which open the show. That aside, this is a role in which he commands the stage, and to his credit, shares it.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to be paid is how this production gets to the heart of the story. It's presented to us with such precision and clarity that this modern audience member barely missed a plot point or a moment, nor wants to. The original music, written by Christian Frederickson adds so much to the show, and gives Mr. Patinkin a chance to show off those musical chops. Along with the inspired direction by Brian Kulick , this is a piece of pure theatrical poetry and should not be missed, especially if one is hard-up on finding some good Shakespeare lately.
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