The Tempest Review: Renée Elise Goldsberry as Prospero in A Public Works Musical

Renée Elise Goldsberry’s star turn as Prospero helps make this entertaining new musical adaptation of “The Tempest” thrilling in some of the same ways as the musical for which she won a Tony Award,  “Hamilton.” Like that Broadway juggernaut, the Public Works production can be enjoyed for the commanding performance of its ear-opening score, composed by relative newcomer Benjamin Velez, and for the way the casting flips a familiar story:  A Black woman (Goldsberry) portrays the European nobleman Prospero, who has taken over an island and enslaved both a “savage” named Caliban and a “spirit” named Ariel, portrayed by two white people (respectively Theo Stockman and Jo Lampert.)  

This reordering subtly pushes an increasingly-voiced interpretation of Shakespeare’s late play as the story of European colonialism. (That’s the interpretation, for example, by Native American and Shakespeare-lover Madeline Sayet, as she explained last year in her solo show Where We Belong. She not only loved “The Tempest,” she identified with Caliban: “He’s indigenous. He’s me.”) The production is able to alter our perspective without changing the main plot of betrayal, revenge and forgiveness, nor the comic and romantic subplots.

The characters that Prospero deliberately shipwreck: Susan Lin as Gonzalo,Sabrina Cedeno as Trinculo, Joel Frost as Alonso, Anthony Chatmon II as Antonio, Jordan Best as Ferdinand, Joel Perez as Stephano, Tristan Andre as Sebastian, Willington Vuelto (center) as one of the mariners

“The Tempest,” to be clear, is not the next “Hamilton.” For one thing, it’s running at the Delacorte only through September 3 as part of the Public Works’ usual long Labor Day weekend run, and it’s too unwieldy to transfer, at least not with its current staging: There are more than a hundred performers on stage.

In his introductory remarks before the performance and in his program note, Public Theater artistic director Oscar Eustis was effusive in his praise of the ensemble — how they work side by side with the professional cast,  range in age from five to 80,  and come from eight community organizations, such as Domestic Workers United, and The Fortune Society, an organization for the formerly incarcerated. Eustis said there was nothing more important at the Public Theater than the Public Works program, which began a decade ago with the express aim of putting members of the community on stage.  Its “radicalism,” Eustis claims, is “based on a profound thesis: that being an artist isn’t a special talent. It’s a deep aspect of every human being.”

Making art may indeed be a universal human need, and there’s certainly some wonderful aspects of this community involvement. The participation of The Fortune Society, for example, closes a circle: The organization is named after John Herbert’s play about incarceration, “Fortune and Men’s Eyes.” – the title of which comes from a Shakespeare sonnet. It’s also heartwarming to see direct benefits for individual community members, such as 16-year-old Naomi Pierre, who participated in three previous Public Works productions through one of the community partners, the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park. She now has a starring role, as Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, more age-appropriate than the usual casting; this may make a tad more credible her naive exclamation, upon spotting stranded Prince Ferdinand (Jordan Best, another non-Equity cast member): “How beauteous mankind is. Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.”

Naomi Pierre as Miranda and Jordan Best as Ferdinand,  the son of Alonso, the King of Naples.

But the participation of largely untrained actors in the final Free Shakespeare in the Park production of the summer is less important, from the audience’s point of view, than the continuation of an earlier tradition at the Delacorte, established from the moment it was built in Central Park six decades ago —  free access to performances by some of the most celebrated actors in America, talented and well trained. I mean like Goldsberry, who gives a forceful performance, and, since I mentioned them, Theo Stockman, Broadway veteran of “American Psycho,” “American Idiot” and “Hair,” his Caliban more beaten-down and pathetic than monstrous, and Jo Lampert, best known on stage for having played Joan of Arc and on screen for roles in Transparent and Orange is the New Black, a graceful Ariel, who gets to wear the single best costume in the show.

The presence of a large ensemble unquestionably enhances the staging of “The Tempest,” but the amateur performers are seamlessly integrated into the action, rather than a center of it. 

This is a good thing, a change from the early Public Works productions, which felt more like a variety show and a fun party.  There are still some moments with community partners in the spotlight, such as the colorful cameo by the Oyu Oro Afro-Cuban Experimental Dance Ensemble:

But they are now the exception, in an evolution I have happily witnessed, beginning with a different production of The Tempest in 2013, and continuing with The Winters Tale in 2014, The Odyssey in 2015, Twelfth Night in 2016 (with an encore in 2018), As You Like It in 2017, Hercules in 2019, and an encore of As You Like It in 2022.

From the beginning, the Public Works productions have taken liberties with the Bard; who doesn’t?  The normal running time of “The Tempest” is three hours, as King Alonso even tells us (“three hours since [we] were wracked upon this shore.”)  A turgid 2015 production of The Tempest at the Delacorte, starring Sam Waterston, took two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission.) The current version is supposed to have a run time of 90 minutes, without an intermission. The performance I saw actually clocked at about 110 minutes, but it felt swifter. And remember, the show now makes room for  Velez’s thirteen songs. These are a tuneful, if not especially memorable, eclectic mix of pop, jazz, Caribbean-flavored, hip hop.  These do not distract from the story; just the opposite. In the first song, which begins the show, Prospero lays out her situation clearly, while a chorus of spirits rhythmically underscores her words:

There was a time when I was whole
Before they broke my spirit
I ruled a city, I had men at my command
They tried to warn me of betrayal, but I couldn’t hear it
And then one night my crown was seized by own brother’s hand

Twelve years of exile

Here on this island

Hungry for vengeance
And now a twist of fate’s in store
My brother’s ship does pass my shore…”

And then we see Prospero cause the shipwreck.

In Shakespeare’s original, the shipwreck comes first, and then that’s followed by a scene in which Prospero explains to Miranda what he has done.  

It would be a sacrilege to say that a twenty-first century song could clarify what’s going on, and thus improve on Shakespeare. So I won’t say it.

The Tempest
At the Delacorte Theater through September 3
Running time: One hour and 50 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: Free:
In-person distribution in Central Park

In-person lottery at The Public Theater

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In-person standby line in Central Park

By William Shakespeare
Adapted by Benjamin Velez and Laurie Woolery
Music and Lyrics by Benjamin Velez
Choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher
Directed by Laurie Woolery
Scenic design by Alexis Distler; costume design by Wilberth Gonzalez; lighting design by David Weiner; sound design by Jessica Paz; hair, wig, and makeup design by Krystal Balleza; prop management by Alexander Wylie; intimacy and fight direction by Kelsey Rainwater; music direction by Andrea Grody; orchestrations by Mike Brun; and music coordination by Kristy Norter.
Equity cast: Tristan André (Sebastian), Brianna Cabrera (Spirit Ancestor Lead Singer), Sabrina Cedeño (Trinculo), Anthony Chatmon II (Antonio), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Prospero), Jo Lampert (Ariel), Patrick O’Hare (Spirit Ancestor Lead Singer), Joel Perez (Stephano), Hunter Ringsmith (Understudy Antonio/Caliban/Sebastian), Edwin Rivera (Spirit Ancestor Lead Singer), Housso Sémon (Understudy Prospero), and Theo Stockman (Caliban).
The production also features two special cameo group performances by EMERGE125 and Oyu Oro Cuban Experimental Dance Ensemble.
The Public Works community partner organizations: Brownsville Recreation Center (Brooklyn),Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education (Bronx), Center for Family Life in Sunset Park (Brooklyn),Children’s Aid (all boroughs), DreamYard (Bronx), Domestic Workers United (all boroughs), The Fortune Society (Queens), and Military Resilience Foundation (all boroughs).

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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