NY Theater Review JK Clarke


Storms figure hugely in Shakespeare’s milieu. More than just portents of doom as in traditional literature, they are more specifically harbingers of change or catalysts: from Macbeth to Lear to Twelfth Night to Pericles and so on. Think for a minute how terrifying a severe rain and thunderstorm must have been back when there was no Weather Channel or Mr. G to tell us what to expect in the coming days—or that the terrible conditions would eventually end. Such is the nature of the storm and its mysterious origins at the heart of The Tempest, now playing through November 2 at La Mama and directed by Karin Coonrod.

Unknown-2The Tempest is the story of a banished Duke, Prospero, living on a savage island somewhere, presumably in the New World (it’s important to remember that the play was written just 10-15 years before the Pilgrims sailed the Mayflower to Plymouth, so exploration and colonization was very fresh, foreboding and mysterious). Prospero has discovered and harnessed the magic of the island, including control of nymphs and spirits, and has begun using them to his advantage, most specifically to create a violent tempest that upends a ship and brings the brother who betrayed him, as well as the King of Naples and a host of other characters, to his island. His goal: to restore his dukedom and to marry his daughter to the King’s son.

Mood plays as larger role in The Tempest than in just about any other Shakespeare play. It is a magical, mystical tour of the New World in the hands of neophytes. It can only be presumed that modern man will be at the behest of supernatural creatures (or, perhaps, unknown peoples, initially seen as inferior and unequal) so the place is defined by its unknowableness. It is the set (Ricardo Hernandez), lighting (Barbara Samuels) and sound/music (Elizabeth Swados) that makes this production special. La Mama’s Ellen Stewart stage plays a significant role in creating a vast mysterious space that echos with the sound of unusual, mysterious sounding instruments, and actors sometimes howling, moaning or whispering in the very reaches of the theater. The audience is surrounded by the elements and in the middle of the action. There is seating only on the sides and end, so the actors are given a stage as big as a basketball court and with upper tiers to boot. A swinging ball emitting light through dozens of small holes welcomes us as a swaying ship in the opening scene, and we feel as if we are on that barque. It is beautifully evocative of the fear one faces when entering a daunting new place. For all intents and purposes, from the opening scene on, we are on the island with the other castaways.

As for the players, there are few actors better suited to play Prospero than Reg E. Cathey (who played the crafty political handler, Norman Wilson, in HBO’s inestimable The Wire). His rich, soothing baritone commands attention, but calms and persuades at the same time, matching his fluid movements, sly smile and furtive eyes. Yes, this man is both Duke and magician, a powerful charismatic figure confident enough to rule with a strong, yet benevolent hand. Cathey is entertaining to both hear and watch, a Prospero who inspires awe and admiration. His daughter Miranda is beautifully portrayed by Miriam A. Hyman as a sensitive, caring and yet naively loyal daughter. The rest of the cast is enjoyable, too, but director Coonrod’s choice of turning many speeches into songs is hit and miss, at best. Words written by Shakespeare as songs come off just fine, whereas some invented numbers feel clunky and awkward, like a bad Broadway musical. Joseph Harrington, no doubt a fine young actor, is given the brunt of the misassigned songs in his role as the nymph, Ariel. Furthermore, Harrington who is best known for playing Billy in the Broadway hit, Billy Elliot, seems employed here primarily for his ballet skills. Ariel glides around the floor with impressive leaps and pas de deux which, unfortunately, feel completely out of step with the rest of the play.

On the costume (Reginna Rizzo) front, while Prospero’s gown is elegant and befitting his character, as are most of the other players, clad in quasi-Elizabethan collars, doublets and hose, a very long discussion could be had over the shoes. One can only surmise that the characters’ feet were under some sort of magic island spell: Ariel wore combat boots and most of the nobles wore (with an unexplainable exception or two) white patent leather pumps with spike heels — a much more modern invention and not a style ever worn by men; the effect was so disarming it proved distracting.

From beginning to end this Tempest is an immersive experience. We are taken into a strange and foreboding place and (without an intermission) witness a magical tale of retribution and redemption. While it is a relief to get off the island, we feel, as do the characters, all the wiser for having landed there.

The Tempest. Through November 2 at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La Mama (66 East Fourth Street, between 2nd Avenue and the Bowery). www.lamama.org