No Frills Bard

Less is more. This mantra, the coup-de-grace cliché amongst most university acting programs, was all-too-familiar to Shakespeare. Being no stranger to the fact that the power to influence an audience is derived directly from the relationship between language and imagination, Shakespeare found his Art in words. And in a visually-dominated, high-definition, 3G, broadband connected society, this is a refreshing sentiment – if not altogether a foreign concept. It seems fitting that a Theatre like Ten Ten, whose historic imprint on NYC theatre is undeniable, would choose to kick off its 53rd Season with a production of The Tempest which befriends the ear and scorns the eye. Hamlet himself would approve of such an approach…up to a point.

For those outside of the know, The Tempest was written circa 1610 and is considered not only one of the greatest works of Shakespeare, but also his last non-collaborative work. The main plot concerns the Sorcerer (and rightful Duke of Milan) Prospero who, along with his daughter Miranda, has been stranded on an island for 12 years due to the jealous nature of his brother Antonio. At the play’s opening, Prospero – having divined that Antonio is on a ship passing close by the island – conjures a storm which causes the ship to run aground…thus foreshadowing the imminent brotherly reunion.

The Tempest is, perhaps, one of the most poetic and mature works of Shakespeare but was often overlooked for productions until well after Shakespeare’s death and the release of the First Folio in 1623. Textually, it is not only seaworthy but seemingly bereft of any leaks and could easily be considered a structural recipe for good dramatic writing. With such an unsinkable script, it is hard to imagine how anything short of magnificence could be achieved…but, all too oft, such is the case.

Under the navigation of Judith Jarosz, this production generally steers true but has an infrequent tendency to be tossed about like Gilligan’s Minnow. The small, intimate space (a sectioned-off portion of the basement theatre at the Park Avenue Christian Church) is charmingly effective and promotes a personal investment between both audience and actor. Acoustically, it proves troubling at times with line deliveries that are garbled or drowned in reverb but, thankfully, this is an exception rather than the norm.

Giles Hogya & David Fuller’s exposed set may lack visual excitement (a multitude of black platforms with only a single tree/plant to suggest location), but it provides a nice canvas for Jarosz and her cast to work the language free from optical distractions. Interestingly enough, Elizabethan staging conventions functioned similarly. Aaron Diehl’s sound design has some nice musical interludes, but some sound effects ill-timed with actor movements draw chuckles.

As with all of Shakespeare’s plays, acting is the key to success. In many productions, actors recite lines that they themselves are unsure about and tend to compensate with stylized over-acting. And while the former is not necessarily an issue for this production, it does suffer a bit from the latter. This would not necessarily be a bad thing, but it does tend to have a distancing effect on a production which appears to strive for a more human, if not touching, approach.

David Fuller’s (Prospero) performance is not only genuine, but endearing and goes a long way in bridging the gap between a Prospero who is omniscient and yet wonderfully human and frail. Similarly, Kendall Rileigh (Ariel) is a pure delight who embodies the magical/mystical nature of Ariel physically, vocally and musically. Scott Michael Morales (Caliban) is to be commended on his vocal and physical endurance, but his performance is much too reminiscent of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings movies.

Overall, The Tempest feels like a piece that could achieve a bit more. Rhythmically, it stutters early on (which might explain why the audience was notably lighter after intermission) but redeems itself admirably in a swift second act. Less, we are told, is equivalent to sounding greater depths, but, as in all things, it cannot simply be relied upon as an altruism. A bit more, perhaps, with minimal effort would serve this production better and have Hamlet cheering in the wings.

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