The Tempest looks impossibly hard to produce: a shipwreck on stage, an air spirit and half-demon that aren’t human, a controlling intellectual with magical capabilities, and a plot that keeps splintering off from itself. All difficulties are cast away, however, with incredible sets by Jian Jung, very fine costuming by Oana Botez-Ban, and some wonderful performances, all under the artistic wand of director Brian Kulick.
Classic Stage Company opens this production with a bold and mystical atmosphere of biblical proportions. The entire stage floor is covered with sand. A black backdrop made deeply beautiful with blue lighting serves to highlight a giant canvas set on the stage. As the show opens, the audience sees that the angled canvass is painted in the warm desert colors of the island, but this prop is tethered so as to permit movement, and with a slight tilt or turn, other colors are brilliantly revealed, taking the audience to another time or place on the island. With the entrance of Prospero, a powerful, bearded figure in flowing robes, the set is drawn to an upstage diagonal slant by the four pulleys at each corner. Prospero (Mandy Patinkin) now makes some ambiguously quick and meaningful gestures, and the set immediately falls towards the floor, revealing the dark blackened blues of the tempest-tossed waters. On the top of the set there is also a model-sized representation of the ship, as if we could see the far cinematic lens of the entire ship and the close ups of the crew and royal party being tossed around at the same time. Prospero exits, and the play begins.
The actual tempest is created in splendid fashion, with thunderous cracks and sailors perched precariously on ladders turned sideways to the audience to give the illusion of floating. Amidst the chaos is Ariel, played by Angel Desai, who sits calmly on a small promontory protruding from the back wall, waiting for the humans to stop running around screaming, obviously not comprehending the human fear of death. The dark storm lighting hides the beautiful striated tattoos across her arms and shoulders and down her legs, revealed when she emerges to tell Prospero of her deeds. Desai shines when her eerily supernatural voice and violin, separate or in accompaniment, bewitch the new co-inhabitants of the island. Nyambi Nyambi’s Caliban is also tattooed with abstract scales and designs across his back, but lacks Ariel’s musical talents. Instead he is absorbed by his all-too-human regret for having trusted Prospero, taking fistfuls of sand from the floor to vainly claim the island as his own. His later interactions with Stephano and Trinculo (Steven Ratazzi and Tony Torn) are too long to endure Torn’s shrill and cloying voice, but Ratazzi’s drunken comedic relief is mildly amusing, especially when Stephano’s cape and staff draw remarkable likings to Prospero’s. Hot-headed Sebastian (Craig Baldwin) and the sly, creepy and clever Antonio (Karl Kenzler) are written as very English Italians, but the pair play well off each other, and their scenes flow nicely.
Miranda, dazzling in a white dress well-cut to her slender figure, is truly weepy upon hearing of the storm. Elisabeth Waterston plays her suitably young, filled with compassion and unfamiliar sexual desire, while underscoring her intelligence and learning in areas outside of human social interaction. Miranda’s innocent perplexity is also funny, which often doesn’t get played up as much, but Waterston handles it deftly. Another outstanding performance comes from Stark Sands as Ferdinand. With confident control of the verse, Sands earnestly grasps Ferdinand’s love for Miranda through his actions. In contrast to the delightfully nightmarish feast, with a large banquet table on wheels making it seem a rollercoaster off its tracks, the celebration of Miranda and Ferdinand’s engagement with creatures and goddesses is enchantingly hypnotic, the most gorgeous lulling and lifting of spirits. In typical Prospero fashion, he stops the ceremonies to remind us that there is more planning and string-pulling to be done.
Patinkin certainly embodies the powerful, bordering on overbearing, physicality of Prospero, though his gestural punctuation is jarringly staccato. His voice takes the verse too feeble-handedly at first, making his deliverance seem flat, but sludging through all the exposition at the beginning of the play is taxing to even the most experienced Shakespearean actor. The rich textures of his tenor surface in his first scene with Caliban, hold us captive in his soothing harmonies during the engagement celebration, and power his final monologue through to a satisfying conclusion. As the cast materializes into a line stretching upstage, a spot closes in on Prospero and dim lights come up on the front center audience. He pleads with the audience to liberate him from his own play, but the applause is more than earned by the entire cast and crew for a shimmering performance.