Wednesday, March 3, 2010

In a Teapot


The Tempest

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Sam Mendes

Starring Christian Camargo, Stephen Dillane, Alvin Epstein, Ron Cephas Jones, Juliet Rylance, Thomas Sadoski

Performances through March 13, 2010

BAM Harvey Theater 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn

Generally considered Shakespeare’s leave-taking of the theater, The Tempest is also one of his most affecting late romances because of the gentleness of the reconciliations that occur following several violent, volatile collisions earlier in the play.

The magician Prospero, seen as Shakespeare’s self-portrait, controls everything about his life on the island where he and daughter Miranda have lived for a dozen years, with the sprite Ariel and slave Caliban doing his bidding. So when he has the chance to reencounter the men responsible for his banishment from Milan where he was Duke, Prospero ensures that a storm brings them on the island, dazzling them with sleight-of-hand until finally and forgivingly announcing that they will return to civilization.

In this staging for BAM’s Bridge Project, director Sam Mendes’s felicitous visual choices suggest the “rough magic” of The Tempest. Our first sight of Caliban, whose head irupts out of the sand, is indelible (it‘s too bad that Mendes repeats the trick later, to diminished effect), and spotlights shine on each shipwreck survivor in turn as Prospero gives Miranda—and us—a summary of the previous 12 years, with Paul Pyant’s lighting subtly accentuating the wondrous isle brought to life mainly through Shakespeare‘s poetry.Tom Piper’s simply effective set consists of a circular sand box and a shallow pool, otherworldly music by Mark Bennett is performed by two musicians on either side of the stage, and Catherine Zuber’s modern-dress costumes include well-worn suits for Prospero. This last is one of Mendes’ bright ideas, but not his best: Stephen Dillane, a well-spoken if underwhelming Prospero, is first seen sitting on a stool, bespectacled, next to one of the musicians, returning there periodically for no good reason. His shabbiness makes him seem less a Duke than a hobo, not my idea of Prospero.

The acting is uneven. Christian Carmago does acceptable work as Ariel, but he’s up against Mendes’ showy direction: when the sprite appears with an enormous pair of wings in one scene, one wonders when (and why) Ariel has become Icarus. Julia Rylance, as Miranda, mimics Dillane, giving a solid but unexciting portrayal, while Ron Cephas Jones makes a good, scary—and sympathetic—Caliban. As for the comic relief, Thomas Sadoski (who is the best of the repertory company in both this and As You Like It) continues to impress as the clownish drunk Stefano, while Anthony O’Donnell’s Trinculo is just broad enough in a part that calls for overacting.

Caliban describes Prospero’s isle as “full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” In Mendes’ Tempest, the island is certainly enchanted but only intermittently delightful.

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