Based on a play as wild and fantastic as the storm that opens the show, Classic Stage Company’s take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest deftly navigates the uneven seas, with its jolly highs and dull lows. When Prospero, the magician controlling the weather, restores calm, the play conforms to the expectations of a comedy, albeit with bizarre tangents, ending in marriage and applause. With impressive staging and clever sets, along with brilliant comic performances, the show is riotously funny and visually stunning. However, there are some disconnects, particularly involving Prospero’s speeches. Adherence to the letter of the script guides this production, which, though admirable, does not make it consistently accessible, and the viewer can sometimes feel lost at sea. As the lights go up, accompanied by a thunderclap, we see a small white ship, seemingly made of paper, perched atop a suspended quadrangle—a reminder of scale that also cleverly brings sublime natural phenomena to the stage. The ship’s inhabitants include Alonso, King of Naples, Antonio, Duke of Milan, Gonzalo, the King’s counselor, and Sebastian, Alonso’s brother. In the face of the storm they are weak and afraid, traits that will figure into their comeuppance. Also on board is Ferdinand, the King’s brave son.
The tempest that deposits the ship’s passengers on an island off the African coast is the work of Prospero, a magician with a score to settle. Mandy Patinkin plays up the ferocity and capriciousness of Prospero, his booming voice resounding with grave authority. Prospero inhabits the island with his beautiful daughter Miranda (a charmingly naïve Elizabeth Waterson), to whom he explains his reasons for raising the storm, and thereby fills the audience in on the history. The play’s weakest points are these explicative passages, which are long-winded and convoluted. Yet, such speechifying exemplifies Prospero’s boorishness, one of several character flaws that make him an unusual hero.
Prospero’s rage seethes as if the betrayal occurred yesterday when he recounts his usurpation by his shamelessly opportunistic brother, Antonio, and his flight from Italy that landed him, his daughter, and, amazingly, his entire library, on the island. Prospero’s supernatural powers derive from his books, and besides raising tempests, he spends his time commanding the spirit Ariel and the native Caliban, the disfigured son of the witch Sycorax, who died before Prospero’s arrival. Caliban is the opposite of the learned man: coarse, unintelligible, and obviously Other. Yet, despite the play’s judgments of Caliban, Nyambi Nyambi’s nuanced rendering can be discomfiting and touching.
As he enacts his vengeance, Prospero makes use of Ariel (an exhilaratingly shrill and mischievous Angel Desai). Ariel works her magic on Ferdinand (Stark Sands), whom Prospero wishes to marry to his daughter. Assuming the form of a sea nymph, she likewise charms the King and his retinue, sowing seeds of jealousy and anger, ultimately leading them to Prospero’s cell, where all of this scheming results in a slightly anticlimactic reckoning.
With many simultaneous plots, the playwright is forced to abruptly tie his loose ends. There is a hasty wedding ceremony, the pardoning of Antonio, the release of Ariel from servitude, the embarrassing comeuppance of the play’s fools (Stefano, Trinculo, and the hopeless Caliban), and Prospero’s restoration as Duke. Ends neatly tied, the play concludes with a gentle epilogue from Prospero, who directly appeals to the audience for their indulgence and his release. Finally, he and the rest of the cast get the applause they deserve.
The production is worth seeing for the perfect buffoonery of Trinculo (Tony Torn, playing the silliest, most enjoyable drunk I’ve ever seen) and Stefano (Steven Rattazzi), whose performances recall a Three Stooges bit. Similarly, Antonio and Sebastian trade sarcastic barbs, mocking Gonzalo and the King’s other attendants. In these scenes, Shakespeare’s language glows with vitality.
Under Brian Kulick’s skilled direction, and with a marvelous set from designer Jian Jung, the play becomes a comedy of sublime proportions. Jung’s set makes use of Classic Stage’s cavernous space, and Kulick positions his cast across its many levels (in dirt, on ladders, atop a wildly spinning table, in the wings, and on platforms set into the back wall). Furthermore, the use of the quadrangle as a representation of sea and sky (on alternating sides) is ingenious and lovely. The golden sky, with touches of darkness, is painted, but is so lit and tilted as to seem to change with the tenor of the scene. The color of the clouded sky is echoed in the sand beneath it, and in Oana Botez-Ban’s lustrous but simple costumes of rich yellows and crisp whites.
The show is an energetically acted, brilliantly staged interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most disjointed comedies. Despite its odd plot and unsympathetic hero, it can be a crowd-pleaser, and this production focuses its exquisite attention on the high notes.