Yes, William Shakespeare wrote a play with the same title, and the people frolicking about CSC’s sand-strewn, blue-box stage (designed by Jian Jung) call each other by the names of its characters. But they’re not pawns in a magical, metaphysical romp being controlled by the duke-turned-sorcerer Prospero, but rather paper finger puppets being waggled by the mustard-smeared man behind the counter. Who, it must be noted, looks a lot like Mandy Patinkin, and is doing everything he can to ensure that his world is the only one worth watching.
It takes only until the second scene for reality to sink in: This isn’t one of those waking dreams Prospero himself might weave, it’s actually happening. Brian Kulick’s production looks like one that evolved outward from its star, but realized too late that the star thought his personality was supposed to be the show. So you get an inordinate amount of Patinkin, and very little anything else.
Okay, that’s not exactly true. You get, in varying doses, injections of the pungent anarchic spirit of Che Guevara from Evita; pensive inward stares a la Georges Seurat from Sunday in the Park With George; and bursts of I’ve-got-a-secret battle-readiness right out of Inigo Montoya’s playbook from the film The Princess Bride. And, oh yes, torrents of Al Jolson jazz hands of the kind that vaudevillian monster Burrs wielded like weapons in The Wild Party, married with hyper-nasal, cheek-slinging speech patterns eerily evocative of Jimmy Durante - the only one of these roles Patinkin, to my knowledge, has not played.
What you don’t get is what The Tempest generally needs most: glimpses into Prospero’s tortured and torturing soul. One can easily understand how Patinkin’s penchant for illuminating sensitive corners of the minds of men with cloudy minds and often foggier morals might make him appear, on paper, an ideal Prospero. He’d convince not only as a loving father to the young girl Miranda, with whom he’s been stranded on an island for 12 years, but as a man of disciplined unpredictability and unquenchable rashness, capable of both angering his brother Antonio and the King of Naples enough to compel them to depose him as Duke of Milan and to shipwreck them within his dominion as the first step toward his later retribution.
This best-case scenario has not come to pass. Patinkin’s Prospero regards Miranda (Elizabeth Waterston) with the same thinly veiled contempt he does Antonio (Karl Kenzler), the King (Michael Potts), and the conspirator Sebastian (Craig Baldwin) who comes between them. When Miranda is in danger of being whisked away by the hunky prince Ferdinand (Stark Sands), Prospero’s eyes have long been shadowed over with indifference - he long ago saw he would lose her, and is now only behaving in accordance with that prophecy.
Prospero’s spirit ally Ariel (Angel Desai) and his twisted servant Caliban (Nyambi Nyambi) are likewise tools to be used and discarded as necessary. The best Prosperos define themselves as much by their relationships with these underlings as they do by their approaches to his more vividly dramatic speeches; here, they’re uncommonly athletic and unaccountably tattooed furniture, rather than objective correlatives of Prospero’s feverish revenge inclinations.
To their credit, Kulick and Patinkin touch upon the intriguing idea that Prospero’s only problem is treating everyone exactly the same. This gives an unusual resonance to his climactic speech about abjuring his powers before resuming his nobleman’s life: He’s lived on the other side of the throne long enough to see that, rich or poor, everyone is equally easy to corrupt or save.
Unfortunately, this robs the play of its characteristic warmth early on, and utterly decimates its catharsis later: Someone who’s already attained such an enlightened state doesn’t need to learn that magic alone can’t solve every problem. Prospero, then, is reduced to little more than game playing, which is somewhat less satisfying from him than it is from the King’s jester Trinculo (Tony Torn) and besotted butler Stefano (Steven Rattazzi) as they wander about with Caliban in the play’s low-comedy quarters.
This trio’s excitably arch approach would probably not jibe with the stately surroundings in a regular production, but here, they set the tone: ineffective, but of a piece, outside of Patinkin. Waterston’s performance is suitably wide-eyed, but bereft of innocence - you don’t quite believe her when she claims she’s never seen other men before. Nor is it clear what attracts her to her especially bewildered paramour; Sands, playing a stereotypical empty-headed royal, was put to much better use as a boy growing up behind the barrel of a gun in last year’s revival of Journey’s End.
Sands, however, at least demonstrates an adaptability, a willingness to reinvent himself. While Patinkin is often at his most powerful when melding coy sweetness with festering darkness, his only balancing act here is between his marquee name and the expectations of the audience. This has, indeed, inspired a Prospero, and a Tempest, we’ve never seen before. But since Patinkin has done so by presenting himself only as he’s previously appeared, the results are closer to insult than insight.