Monday, June 22, 2015

Theater Reviews—Sam Waterston in 'The Tempest' in Central Park; Chris Noth in 'Doctor Faustus' Off-Broadway

The Tempest
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Michael Greif
Performances through July 5, 2015
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY

Doctor Faustus
Adapted by David Bridel and Andrei Belgrader, from the play by Christopher Marlowe; directed by Andrei Belgrader
Performances through July 12, 2015
Classic Stage Company, 123 East 13th Street, New York, NY

Waterston and Carpanini in The Tempest (photo: Joan Marcus)
Whether or not The Tempest represents Shakespeare’s symbolic leave-taking of the theatre, there's no denying its powerful evocation of the theatrical magic conjured for audiences by performers and creators. But for this Central Park staging, director Michael Greif comes to grief right from the storm that starts the exiled Duke Prospero's plot machinations in motion. 

Heretofore foolproof comic bits of the island's monster Caliban and clowns Trinculo and Stephano are off-handedly offered; the scenes among the shipwrecked survivors are handled in a desultory manner; the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand palls; and the masque accompanying their wedding is a shambles despite astounding gymnastics.

Greif has set designer Riccardo Hernandez erect the director's adored scaffolding, which never suggests the play's glistening isle; costume designer Emily Rebholz has created drab clothing for everyone, while bafflingly giving the same leather vest to both Caliban and Prospero's sprite Ariel; and composer Michael Friedman, whose banging percussion is part of a burgeoning onstage cliche, supplies songs and incidental music of forgettable quality. At least lighting designer David Lander does achieve some illuminating moments of visual poetry.

Trinculo and Stephano's comic relief is crudely provided by the usually able Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Danny Mastrogiorgio. Ariel and Caliban can played any number of ways, except as here: Chris Perfetti's Ariel is a disastrous mess, while Louis Cancelmi's Caliban is impressive in his physical contortions, far less so in his mealy-mouthed way of speaking.  Although Juilliard student Francesca Carpanini is a fetching, well-spoken Miranda, Ferdinand is played by Rodney Richardson, who tends to unnecessarily bark or shout his lines. He does provide an audience-pleasing flip, however.

Finally, there's Sam Waterston's Prospero. Anyone who saw him as King Lear a few seasons back shouldn't be surprised that he can't do Prospero properly either: his croaking voice is all wrong for Shakespeare's poetry, his odd enunciations are distracting, as are his pauses and stressing syllables in the wrong places. He also has no sense of the majesty, pathos, resentment and, finally, forgiveness in Prospero: he's best at hopping giddily when his machinations are working to bring Miranda and Ferdinand together. 

I didn't expect Waterston to approach the best Prospero I've seen, Christopher Plummer, but I hoped that this stage veteran could at least make a respectable showing. I was wrong.

Noth and Grenier in Doctor Faustus (photo: Joan Marcus)
I don't know if Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus can still work onstage at this late date, but I can empahtically state that, as adapted by David Bridel and this production's director Andrei Belgrader, it most assuredly cannot. 

Marlowe's 17th century take on the Faustian legend explores what awaits those who, like Faustus, get bored with life and sell their soul for a chance at immortality. Belgrader turns this still rich ore into a messy staging that never decides if it wants to be an update to the supposedly enlightened 21st century or a sitcom-level spoof of the play's more dated elements: instead, it keeps a foot in both camps, making for a protracted, fitfully amusing but mainly dull pageant. (The continuous attempts at audience participation underline Belgrader's desperation, as if viewers will enjoy what they're watching more if they are part of it.)

Zach Grenier nicely underplays Mephistopheles as a tired demon,  resigned to dealing with men like Faust and forcing himself to feign interest. Chris Noth—who certainly looks the part of the intelligent but arrogant man of science who wants spice in his life, his soul be damned—finds humor in Faust, although, thanks to Belgrader's misdirecting, only fleetingly projects the protagonist's complexity. Lithe dancer Marina Lazzaretto disrobing as Helen of Troy perks things up at the end, but this misbegotten Faustus never gives the devil, or Marlowe, his due.

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