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The Tempest

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Francesca Carpanini and Sam Waterston
Photo by Joan Marcus

You're forced out of your dukedom. You're abandoned on a deserted island with nothing but your daughter and minimal supplies. Your only friends are a spirit and a deformed animal-thing. And, to top it off, as soon as you're on the path to putting everything right, new circumstances arise to rob you of what shreds of things you may yet be clinging to. You have a right to be flummoxed! So there can be no question that the Prospero of Sam Waterston in the new Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest at the Delacorte Theater is sensibly intentioned at its center, and that does count for something in Michael Greif's mounting.

But theory not put fully into practice and carried to its natural conclusion—whatever that may be—rarely possesses the force onstage that it may have in its deviser's head. Though Waterston has taken great pains to give us a Prospero who is emotionally and intellectually crippled by his own personal tragedies, he falls well short of showing us how that man and the one who is able to (literally) move the heavens and the earth to set things right are, in fact, one and the same.

It's critical from the beginning, too, as William Shakespeare's writing does not naturally paint this man as one barely in control of his faculties. After all, we meet him even before we see him, pulling the celestial strings behind the violent storm that wrecks a royal sailing vessel and scatters its passengers to the inhospitable wilderness. And Prospero has a crystalline reason for despising those men. His brother, Antonio, colluded with Alonso, the King of Naples, to push out Prospero as Duke of Milan; and now Antonio wants to elevate Alonso's brother, Sebastian, to the throne so he can be the power behind it. For the twelve years since his ouster, Prospero has had little to do but explore his magic (his "art"), and plot how to rebuild a proper life for both himself and his now-grown daughter, Miranda.

That's a lot to reconcile with the notion that Prospero is as at the end of his mental rope as he is the end of his life, but Shakespeare carved an abundantly rich character that experiences and changes much. His interactions with his spritely servant Ariel, the native monster Caliban, and of course Miranda, who in short order falls in love with Prince Ferdinand (who was also aboard the ship), lead him to a place where he may at last rest from his labors after concluding his pursuit of justice. A Prospero could begin senile and unlock new, revivifying wisdom along the way. Or he could find his firm footing only in the mysticism he's worked tirelessly to control. Or... Well, nearly anything else the actor and his director can imagine.

Waterston and Greif, however, don't seem to have imagined anything. Waterston starts doddering and stays there, right through Prospero's epic final speeches, with neither his tortured history, his conjuring a wedding masque for Miranda and Ferdinand, nor the revenge he enacts igniting so much as a spark. When it's time for Prospero to let go and move on to the next (and presumably final) stage of his life, there's no triumph, no heartbreak, no acknowledgment of monumental accomplishments toppled to the Earth. It's just another minute on just another day, not the culmination of 12 years or more of intricate planning and trap-laying.

Perhaps we're to interpret from the appearance of this Prospero's wand (a short, unassuming stick) and his cloak (a thin white scrap onto which black designs have been embroidered) that this man truly is mad and all of this has been merely in his head, as he waits, as he says in his final line, for our indulgence to set him free? But there's no evidence of that, either, as the people with whom he interacts, and the way in which he does it, straight to the final words of his post-narrative speech to us. Our impression, then, is of a performance and a conception that cohere neither with each other nor with what else is around them. Prospero may be the estranged outsider, but that's pushing things too far.

The good news, though, is that Greif has otherwise done well by The Tempest, his take being utterly unadventurous but thoroughly respectable. Eschewing most big laughs and sweeping drama in favor of more consistent, forward-moving action, Greif's version has a cleaner feel and a better balance than most I've seen. The set (Riccardo Hernandez), costumes (Emily Rebholz), and lights (David Lander) suggest a Civil War sound-stage atmosphere that provides a low-key, no-fuss canvas. More important, the transition from courtroom intrigue to first-love romance to the low comedy stylings of Caliban, the drunken butler Stephano, and the jester Trinculo is seamless: Within the maelstrom of Prospero's conjurings, everyone with troubles is always on equal footing.

In keeping with this, there are no breakout performances, merely a militia of chess pieces of similarly high strength. Though hardly boring, Chris Perfetti's Ariel is on the heavy side, projecting every ounce of the weight of his bondage. Cotter Smith's laid-back nastiness as Antonio is quietly unsettling, and it contrasts well with Frank Harts's reluctant but warmer-blooded Sebastian; Charles Parnell's Alonso is static-free, and possessing an unusual dull-edged malevolence that works for the character. Francesca Carpanini and Rodney Richardson are refreshingly adult as Miranda and Ferdinand, smarter, more stable, and less dewy-eyed than they're usually played. And Danny Mastrogiorgio and Jesse Tyler Ferguson are a brightly matched pair as Stephano and Trinculo, limning the smarter and dumber boundaries of the comedic realm their parts occupy. Only Louis Cancelmi fails to satisfy: His Caliban looks and moves in ways that are physically stiff and bestial, but these traits are at odds with his plummy, affected line delivery.

Maybe we're supposed to infer that Caliban is taking on the attitude of his master, a sort of twisted, corporeal genie that has no identity of his own? Like Prospero, he doesn't feel completely real, but a mashed-together amalgam of pieces that can almost imagine what real life is like. You can almost see how that link could emerge from Greif and Waterston's spin, but it never quite does. Chalk it up to yet another interesting, unexplored possibility in this Tempest, which, is satisfied and satisfying working at the highest levels of the commonplace.

The Tempest
Through July 5
Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue
Performances: Mon 8:00 pm, Tues 8:00 pm, Wed 8:00 pm, Th 8:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm
Box Office Hours: Free tickets are distributed at 12:00PM (noon) every day that there is a public performance.? Performance days will vary from week to week, so be sure to check the performance calendar. Please remember that Central Park does not officially open until 6:00AM. Each person (age 5+) may receive up to two (2) tickets, until we run out. Seat locations are distributed randomly; not based on a person's position in the line.
Free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park are also distributed by random lottery at

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