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The Tempest

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Tempest
Stephen Dillane and Juliet Rylance.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When first spotted at the start of The Tempest, which is being presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theater as the second part of The Bridge Project this year, Prospero moves with a master surgeon’s considered deliberateness. Applying his robe as if it were a clergical vestment, he imbues acts as small as pulling on sleeves or raising a hood with meaning that seems beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. When he begins walking in ever-expanding circles around the sandy pit at the center of the stage, sprinkling water on the beach at carefully chosen intervals, you can tell before a single line is spoken that you’re in the presence of an artist for whom every apparently minuscule movement is in fact a sweeping brush stroke.

It’s difficult not to consider him, at least as played with a ragged and fiery forcefulness by Stephen Dillane, something of a stand-in for this production’s director, Sam Mendes. As Mendes proved with this season’s previous Bridge Project production, As You Like It, which performs in repertory with The Tempest through March 13, he views the individual pieces of Shakespeare’s theatrical puzzles as relevant only in how they interlock. Taken alone, none of the scenes in this mounting would make a lasting impression, but when viewed in close and unyielding succession - the show runs two hours and 15 minutes, with no intermission - they reveal a surreally satisfying picture of Prospero making peace with the universe and himself.

Nearly every scene emerges as one of his vaporous creations, often given form with the help of his hopefully devoted spirit servant, Ariel (Christian Camargo), who hopes that every errand will be the last before he attains his freedom. The two (nicely aided by the talented lighting designer, Paul Pyant) conjure up images of the royal court of Naples - King Alonso (Jonathan Lincoln Fried); his brother Sebastian (Richard Hansell); the king’s aged advisor Gonzalo (Alvin Epstein); and the scheming Antonio (Michael Thomas) - shipwrecked on the island to which Antonio banished Prospero a dozen years earlier, as though they’re the disjointed perceptions of someone waking from a coma. The lighter trials of the court’s butler Stephano (Thomas Sadoski) and jester Trinculo (Anthony O’Donnell) as they drunkenly lurch about the island with Prospero’s demon servant Caliban (Ron Cephas Jones) are suffused with the misty believability of actions (unfortunately) remembered while nursing a hangover.

But when mysticism intervenes - whether Ariel is interrupting Antonio and Sebastian’s plot to usurp Alonso’s throne, or mocking Stephano, Trinculo’s, and Caliban’s raucous cavorting - they inject a stabilizing, and often unsettling, frankness into an otherwise highly imaginary world. Camargo’s touchy, lightly threatening Ariel is just the right conductor for these moments, oscillating between playful banter and true master of terror (as when he appears to the royal conspirators as a giant, skeletal bird) as exactly the jack of all trades you can picture Prospero demanding for his assistant.

The net effect is that even when Prospero is not at center stage, he’s still the fulcrum around which the action turns. You always feel you’re exploring his full, sad history at the same time you’re watching him unveil his own future - a highly appropriate interpretation for a man who was ousted from his dukedom for spending too much time with his books. It makes complete sense, then, that the scenes set on Prospero’s property - primarily the beach, but also in the heavily stocked libraries on the periphery of Tom Piper’s set - with his daughter Miranda (Juliet Rylance) and Alonso’s missing son, Ferdinand (Edward Bennett) - are starkly earthy and realistic, as though dreams extend everywhere except the land just past Prospero’s front door.

Dillane is a keen marshal of all this, parading about with the carriage of a bluebood but the weariness of a wronged man who’s ready to give it all up long before he realizes it himself. His strength of voice and personality ensure that Prospero doesn’t just sail through some of the sumptuous speeches that dot the role, but that he reinforces for both the audience and the other characters that we’re all inhabitants of his universe.

The Tempest
Ron Cephas Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Of particular note of the other performers are Jones, who’s a dutifully creepy Caliban, animalistic without the caricature that so often creeps into portrayals; and Sadoski, whose lusty sense of rhythm, ideally aligned comic timing, and constant dark focus never let Stephano become merely an extraneous laugh-getter, but instead make him the mortal Everyman stumbling through the land of omniscients. But nearly everyone is good - only Rylance disappoints, the maturity and innate cynicism that made her such a natural Rosalind in As You Like It utterly wrong for the innocent, impatient, and ostensibly 15-year-old Amanda.

The only other misstep is the duo of live musicians, whose percussion-heavy accompaniment can drown out dialogue, distract from speeches, and threaten to pierce Prospero’s ever-expanding bubbles of fantasy. The drums do succeed in highlighting the ritualistic nature of Prospero’s art, but a tribal lineage for them that isn’t borne out by either Mendes’s staging, the sets, or Catherine Zuber’s modern-dress costumes.

They’re the only element of this version of The Tempest that neither understands where or why they are nor are immediately identifiable as Prospero’s specific ministrations. They are, admittedly, gutturally thrilling, but they’re unnecessary for either pushing the action forward or explaining why the play’s world has suddenly started to shift on its axis. For those tricks, and so many others, the twin wizards of Prospero and Mendes are all we need.


The Bridge Project
The Tempest
Through March 13
Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theater, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Brooklyn Academy of Music