Friday, September 19, 2008

In a Teapot

The Tempest
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Brian Kulick
Starring Mandy Patinkin, Elisabeth Waterston,

Performances from September 3–October 19, 2008
Classic Stage Theatre
136 East 13th Street

Waterston and Patinkin in The Tempest (photo: Joan Marcus)
Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, is not only an artful summation of the Bard’s entire career but also a humane study of reconciliation containing his most eloquent poetry and profound insights into human nature.

Brian Kulick, artistic director of the Classic Stage Company and director of this Tempest, writes wisely about the Bard’s final theatrical work (not counting the later collaborations with John Fletcher) in the CSC’s current newsletter, and is well worth reading. For unknown reasons, however, very little of that discernment is on display in his production, which has no point of view, being merely a succession of competently staged scenes that never coalesce to form a broader whole.

The opening shipwreck is cleverly staged: with thunderclaps overhead, a large square canvas at center stage that’s being manipulated by a quartet of stagehands moves to reveal a small-scale model ship being tossed about on the raging sea. The men on board–the King of Naples, the current (and unlawful) Duke of Milan, the king’s brother and his honest counselor–run to and fro amid the CSC’s small space.

They reach the island where Prospero, the banished Duke of Milan, has made a life away from civilization with his beloved young daughter Miranda–helped by his harnessing the otherworldly powers of the spirit Ariel and the strength of the savage slave Caliban. Here, Kulick musters too-infrequent visual invention and dramatic consistency. Representing the magical isle in the first act is a thin layer of sand, upon which much of the action takes place (maybe that’s why all the actors are barefoot–so their shoes don’t fill up with sand). At other times, Prospero or Ariel climb ladders on the walls to watch over the other characters.

In a staging with very little variety, only the occasional movement of that canvas by the stagehands stands out–and even this is more distracting than enlightening. Kulick distinguishes his island beasts and spirits by having tattoos drawn on their torsos and limbs, which doesn’t add much aside from some pleasing designs to look at. The director’s cast is also anything but distinguished.

Caliban and Ariel are competently played by Nyambi Nymabi and Angel Desai, but the play’s comic relief–in the form of servants Trinculo and Stefano–is acted out by Tony Torn and Steven Rattazzi as if auditioning for a Three Stooges remake. (Typically, many in the audience guffaw most at whatever’s not written by Shakespeare.)

A quartet of actors makes a not very royal crew of shipwrecked royals: Michael Potts (King Alonso), Craig Baldwin (his brother Sebastian), Yusef Bulos (counselor Gonzalo) and Karl Kenzler (Prospero’s brother Antonio) blend into an indistinguishable fog. Stark Sands is a stiff Ferdinand, the king’s son presumed dead in the shipwreck who falls in love with Miranda. Played by Elisabeth Waterston with an appealing awkwardness, this Miranda actually seems like a 15-year-old girl who has never known love’s pangs nor seen a handsome young man before. Waterston may yet become a Shakespearean actress to reckon with if she can harness the language.

And Mandy Patinkin as Prospero? Unlike other cast members, he’s more at ease with the Bard’s poetry and has an imposing presence. Yet he never speaks naturally; every syllable, word and line of dialogue are enunciated at maximum velocity and volume, and the loss of the words’ meaning is incalculable. The best (or worst) example occurs at the very end of the play, whose final lines should move us to the marrow conflating Prospero’s journey with that of the actor who’s undertaken this demanding role: instead, Patinkin–who looks terrific, by the way, with his salt-and-pepper beard and lithe movement–gives the speech such awkward rhythms that he loses the essential core of Shakespeare’s majestic epilogue...and ultimately that of both Prospero and The Tempest.

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