If The Tempest that has now opened in Central Park feels too earth-bound, one can lay much of the blame on forces beyond its control. The production at the Delacorte of Shakespeare’s mystical play set on a magical island comes some six months after LaMaMa’s presentation of three soaring Tempests – one by Elizabeth Swados, one from the Mokwha Repertory Company of Korea, and the third from the MOTUS company of Italy.
If that’s not enough, the Classical Theatre of Harlem is planning such elaborate aerial acrobatics for its Tempest next month that it has sent its cast to flight school.
Put the Public Theater’s current Tempest, directed by Michael Greif (Rent, Next to Normal), next to such physically rigorous and visually inventive productions – or just compare it to the last time this play was presented at the Delacorte, 20 years ago, directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Patrick Stewart — and it is hard to avoid a tinge of disappointment. This Tempest seems a tad tepid. The scenic design is largely uninspired, especially the static backdrop of ocean waves. The stagecraft is so-so. Even the shipwreck Prospero causes as the play begins, though full of very loud simulated thunder and bright lights flashing right in our eyes, is less striking or transporting than annoying.
The performances are not often more than competent. As Prospero, Sam Waterston, who has given many a compelling performance in his half century as both a popular and classical actor, mostly comes off here as too low-key and mannered; it was rare when I could forget he was Sam Waterston, despite the bushy white beard.
There are some standout performances, including Chris Perfetti as the airy spirit Ariel and Louis Cancelmi as the savage Caliban, who are cleverly presented (via Emily Rebholz’s costumes) as precise negative images of one another. Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family) does his reliably comic turn as Trinculo, the King’s jester
But when Rodney Richardson as Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples, does a back flip after meeting Prospero’s virginal daughter Miranda (Francesca Carpini), it feels like a burst of ebullience that is otherwise largely lacking on this stage.
The production picks up in liveliness as the story progresses, with the nice addition of music by Michael Friedman, but it never quite makes up for the turgid first half.
Still, “The Tempest” at the Delacorte is worth seeing, as are almost all the Public’s productions in Central Park. As the announcer never tires of pointing out (and I never tire of hearing) summer after summer: Since 1962, some five million people have seen more than 150 productions by the Public in Central Park, all for free. In more than one way, the Delacorte is an apt setting for The Tempest, the theatrical tale of the collision of two worlds – the shipwrecked men from Milan and Naples, and the remote island to which they repair, which Prospero rules over as a magical kingdom. It is a metaphor for the Delacorte itself, which causes a happy collision between two worlds, that of everyday New Yorker and the kingdom of the stage.
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By William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Greif
Scenic Design Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Design Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design David Lander
Sound Design Acme Sound Partners and Jason Crystal
Soundscapes Matt Tierney
Hair and Make-Up Design J. Jared Janas
Original Music Michael Friedman
Cast: Jordan Barrow, Louis Cancelmi, Francesca Carpanini, Nicholas Christopher, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Chloe Fox, Rosharra Francis, Thomas Gibbons, Frank Harts, Sunny Hitt, Brandon Kalm, Olga Karmansky, Tamika Sonja Lawrence, Rico Lebron, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Tim Nicolai, Matthew Oaks, Charles Parnell, Chris Perfetti, Rodney Richardson, Laura Shoop, Cotter Smith, Sam Waterston, and Bernard White
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.
The Tempest is scheduled to run through July 5.