Friday, October 3, 2008

The Tempest

My friend ModFab told me this last weekend that I'm extremely generous in my theater reviews because I've found good things to say about plays that he didn't feel were all that deserving. This is, of course, intentional on my part: I've tried very hard to be fair in my written assessments of a production. Get me into a bar after a theatrical travesty and I'll wail on it like nobody's business. And on more than a few occasions, I've sat in a theater and understood completely why some animals will gnaw off their own feet when caught in a trap. But when I'm writing a review, I hope that my words will be out in the world for some time to come and I want them to be considered and, if nothing else, polite.

Bear that in mind as I tell you now about The Tempest.

Two actors who appear regularly in more experimental downtown productions, Steven Rattazzi and Tony Torn, did a wonderful job with the language and I could understand every word they said. As they played the clowns, Stephano and Trinculo—who spend the vast majority of the play drunk—this does not say much for the diction of their fellow actors. Stark Sands did a good job as Ferdinand, the young hero, but I was a little distracted by his student council president haircut: did this strike no one as being at odds with Elizabethan costumes? Worse still, most of the other actors just glommed onto one facet of their character and played that throughout the evening: Mandy Patinkin as Prospero was extremely irritable; Yusef Bulos as Gonzalo was kindly but confused; Michael Potts' Alonso was depressed (he believes that he lost his son in the titular event, so that's a little understandable); and as Prospero's daughter, Miranda, Elizabeth Waterson was always—and I do mean always—on the virge of tears... I almost laughed when, after she and Ferdinand profess their love for one another, he asked "Wherefore weep you?" because I'd been wondering that from the beginning of the play.

I wasn't sure exactly what to make of Brian Kulick's direction: I didn't see where he had a point to make about the play and yet it was a somewhat stylized production. CSC's theater—a flexible performance space, usually with audience seating on three sides—is one of my favorites in the city: it always feels intimate to me and yet it's got a surprisingly large playing area. For The Tempest, the room was painted completely blue with a square playing area of sand in the center. Above the actors' heads there was a photo-realistic painting of storm clouds that was raised and lowered by four costumed stagehands, usually to indicate a new location on the island (which, in my opinion, is completely unnecessary in Shakespeare); its reverse was painted blue with a ship model attached to the center that could only be used in the opening scene (in case we couldn't tell from the dialogue that the action takes place on a ship during a storm). As an environment, I was intrigued by it for a few minutes before the play began, but other than establishing that they've all been shipwrecked on an island due to the storm, it doesn't add much to the play; then, during the intermission, the sand got all swept away and remained in a pile along the upstage wall for no reason that was apparent to me. I understand that sometimes a director makes choices for practical reasons: perhaps events or actions occur in Act II that would make working in sand difficult (I didn't see anything, but we'll assume that's the reason); it's important then to find creative ways of making the necessity seem like a choice to audience instead of just hoping we'll ignore it.

Of course, Mandy Patinkin is the reason most people will come to see this Tempest. I found it sad that his dialogue in The Princess Bride was more coherent than anything he spoke here. His performance reminded me of the recordings I've heard of the great 19th century actors like Herbert Beerbom Tree, except for some reason Patinkin chose not to employ consonants very often (which are kind of important if you want people to know what you're saying) so that even the famous speeches tended to sound like vocal warm-ups. It felt more than a little ironic when, in Prospero's "farewell to art" epilogue, he begs the audience to "let your indulgence set me free."

Indulgence indeed.

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