By JK Clarke
I look forward eagerly to the twice-annual Shakespeare plays by the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit. The Mobile Unit holds a special place in my heart because its charter is to bring Shakespeare to communities that have no regular access to theater and to many who not only have never seen a Shakespeare play, but any play at all. Following the credo that “Culture belongs to everyone,” the Mobile Unit takes its plays to community centers, correctional facilities and public institutions in the outer boroughs of New York City, before parking the show at The Public for a run of two weeks. The shows are all free, and many of its alumni have gone on to star on Broadway and on television shows and films. This year, one of those stars, the wonderful Myra Lucretia Taylor (Drama Desk Award for School Girls: Or, The African Mean Girls Play) has returned to The Public to star as Prospero in Shakespeare’s magical and mystical Romantic play, The Tempest.
Because The Tempest is so multi-layered and subject to a multitude of interpretations, directors tend to choose a specific pathway to follow. Though it’s agreed that Revenge is a central theme, often times Redemption is the message that’s focussed on. Such is the case with director Laurie Woolery’s production. Here, Ms. Taylor’s Prospero (the character was written as male, but it’s not unusual for women to play the role) is more Earth Goddess than avenging noble. When she and her daughter are set adrift after her dukedom is usperped, she surely is bent on getting back at those who wronged her, specifically her brother Sebastian, the perpetrator. Though it takes a dozen years as a castaway on an island, she has learned “magic” and how to control the land’s magic sprites. At the play’s open she has created a monster of a storm that will cause the King of Naples’ ship to crash near the island, with survivors washing up in various places on the shore.
Prospero then conspires, using her magic and spirit servant Ariel (beautifully played by the graceful Danaya Esperanza), to engineer a romance between the King’s son Ferdinand (Jasai Chase-Owens) and Miranda (Sam Morales), Prospero’s daughter. Meanwhile, in a bit of bumbling comic relief that doesn’t quite hit the mark, Trinculo, the King’s jester (Reza Salazar), and Stephano (Dan Domingues), his butler conspire with Caliban (Christopher Ryan Grant)—a “monster” native to the island whom Prospero has enslaved because of his various misdeeds—to kill Prospero and steal her magic. There are other intrigues, as well, all of which are resolved during and just after a masque meant to celebrate the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand.
When Propsero leaves the masque and to squash the conspiracy against her, in this play her rage is somewhat muted, all things considered. But it makes sense, considering that the three plotters never posed much of a threat. Nonetheless, the scene feels out of place, as it felt as if the play had all but ended during the masque. This is largely the result of a new scene wherein the director (one presumes it was Woolery, anyhow, as no dramaturge has been credited for this production) has actually added two new characters—referred to as Mother Ancestor and Father Ancestor, played by Taylor—and the audience is invited to chant words (not written by Shakespeare) of healing (“Cultivate love, cultivate courage, cultivate strength, cultivate hope . . .”). Though Shakespeare plays are frequently edited for time, clarity or modernity (as was the case here, where some very unpleasant lines about the ownership of wives and their chastity were excised), they are rarely, if ever, augmented. Adding words to Shakespeare’s plays is the height of impudence and arrogance and is never looked upon favorably. What’s more, it never works. Though we were treated to Ms. Taylor’s gorgeous singing, the added scene made little sense, particularly as there was a pivotal moment that yet remained in the play (Prospero’s loving liberation of Ariel).
However, despite that moment of editorial chutzpah, the Mobile Unit has once again delivered a delightful production (wonderfully enhanced by Claire Deliso’s minimal but effective set and Wilberth Gonzalez’s powerful period costumes which looked they cost a fortune, but probably didn’t). Their ability to take Shakespeare’s beloved plays and deliver them expertly to communities who wouldn’t otherwise see them is worth celebrating over and over.
The Tempest. Through May 16 at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette, at Astor Place). 90 minutes, no intermission. www.publictheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus