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Off-Broadway Review: The Tempest

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

Mandy Patinkin's pissed-off Prospero anchors a stellar production by New York's Classic Stage Company.

ImageWhen I first started watching theater seriously, I would go into productions of plays I knew with an image of what I thought the play should look like in my head, and a production succeeded or failed in my estimation based on how closely it matched that idealized vision. There are many insults to hurl at such a perspective. I'll content myself merely to call it stupid. As my tastes have matured, I've come to like plays or films based on how many specific choices they make. Making specific choices becomes even more important with material like a Shakespeare play, any of which challenges directors and actors to actually say something. So the moral of the story is that, pretty much, if a production makes specific choices – even if I disagree with them, even if they're sometimes lousy ones – I'll probably enjoy the show.

The Classic Stage Company's production of The Tempest is packed with specific choices, most of which I enjoyed.

This off-Broadway production has drawn strong crowds with the appearance of Mandy Patinkin as the marooned wizard Prospero. Naturally, geeks like me best remember Patinkin from Rob Reiner's classic movie The Princess Bride. Looking back at that movie, Reiner and company stumbled into a spectacular confluence of large-hearted talent, which succeeds mainly because of the commitment of all the actors to such a fanciful script.

Patinkin's skills as an actor are about as large as his resume, which took up almost an entire page in The Tempest's program with nary a mention of Inigo Montoya. I don't blame him for the omission, but while watching this production, which pits the power of anger against the power of love, I couldn't help but fondly think back on his performance as the vengeful Spaniard and marvel at how much love Patinkin pours into his performances, even when he's playing characters whose driving animus is revenge.

Of the Prosperos I've seen in performance, Patinkin's ranks among the angriest, and it's an angry role to begin with. In what is otherwise a very funny production, director Brian Kullick wisely sacrifices most of the laughs associated with the character Caliban in favor of a Caliban/Prospero relationship that underlines Prospero's cruelty.

Let me elaborate: I forget what literary critic said this – maybe it was Harold Bloom – but this critic made a forceful argument that any serious production of The Tempest should present Caliban not as a monster, but as a normal-looking native of the island. This critic based their argument on several textual cues, such as Trinculo's description that Caliban is "legged like a man" with "fins like arms." Now, I don't agree that Caliban absolutely must be presented as a island native. Other characters describe him as "deformed" at one point or another, and I think there's plenty of room for lighter productions that present a more Gollum-like Caliban.

But this isn't one of those productions. Normal-looking guy Nyambi Nyambi plays Caliban as a longtime wronged native of the island, all while delivering his lines with some kind of African accent. With that image in mind, try to imagine Prospero's first interaction with Caliban. Patinkin's face blushes a deep red during this section, where Prospero berates Caliban for attempting to rape his daughter, Miranda (a pleasantly goofy Elizabeth Waterston). Patinkin uses a heavy sash as an impromptu whip here, lashing at a cowering Caliban while shouting one insult after another.

Reality check: In the world of this production, Caliban gleefully admits to the crime – "I had peopled else this isle with Calibans" – but the imagery remains deeply unsettling: An old white man whipping a powerful young black man.

That's a laser-specific choice. Kudos.

Prospero's rage continues unabated for most of the production, even influencing the exposition-heavy opening scene with his daughter, as Patinkin delivers Prospero's attention-getting reminders as impatient snaps.

But most striking was Prospero's relationship with Ariel, played by Angel Desai, whose Ariel leans toward the "human and conflicted" end of the spectrum for this role. The breezy island nymph clamors for her freedom for the entire play, but Desai adds to Ariel a love for Prospero that complicates her feelings about her impending release. I couldn't quite put my finger on how she felt about Prospero, and I enjoyed that ambiguity. At times Desai's Ariel looks exhausted, spent and resigned to running out the clock on Prospero.

But Desai made one incredibly specific choice that about had me blubbering. In the fourth act, Prospero commands a group of spirits to perform for his daughter and her newfound beau, the shipwrecked prince Ferdinand, well played by Stark Sands in a thankless role. (Sands also distinguishes himself for being named like an Ian Fleming or a Mickey Spillane badass.) During this, he asks Ariel to go round up a trio of characters who had been plotting his death. Ariel leaves the stage with these five lines:

Before you can say 'come' and 'go,'
And breathe twice and cry 'so, so,'
Each one, tripping on his toe,
Will be here with mop and mow.
Do you love me, master? no?

Ariel shares some DNA with Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, who carries out the commands of the fairy king Oberon with similarly whimsical exit lines, but to the surprise of no one, Shakespeare out-thinks us by ending this dippy quintet with a direct question. Desai motivates this tonal shift by delivering the first four lines in breezy-nymph mode before noticing the two lovers, who are canoodling on the ground before her. Once she sees them, her face falls, and she asks her question. I barely heard her say it, but I heard her all the same, and even though she had been bellyaching the whole play about her indentured servitude, her heart hung on Prospero's answer. She just looked so damn sad.

I won't take the time to describe every specific choice like this in the play – this review's already running long – but rest assured that such care and thought run throughout the production. All the same, though, I'll touch on one more. Consider this key exchange in act five:

Your charm so strongly works 'em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

Dost thou think so, spirit?

Mine would, sir, were I human.

And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason 'gaitist my fury
Do I take part: the rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel:
My charms I'll break, their senses I'll restore,
And they shall be themselves.

Remember when I mentioned Patinkin's anger? It carries over into this scene, where we see Prospero angry about letting go of his anger. Patinkin's Prospero sounds pissed off at himself for letting a wispy air spirit instruct him in the ways of human decency. Prospero's anger carries through the rest of the final act, all the way to his reconciliation with his treacherous brother Antonio, played by Karl Kenzler, who acquits himself well in another thankless role.

I could go on like this ad nauseam, but I'll shut up about the performances and note Brian H. Scott's clever lighting design, which let the actors cast intriguing shadows in anticipation of their entrances, such as a monstrous-looking silhouette that heralded Caliban's first appearance. Scott, however, loses points for feeling the need to put the actors in spotlights during each aside.

Jian Jung's scenic design also deserves praise. Jung sets the play on a simple square of sand that lies underneath a huge, mobile painted flat that depicts a cloudy sky. Stagehands visibly maneuver this aerial backdrop with ropes and pulleys, giving the entire theater a nautical feel – I kept waiting for someone to bark an order to hoist the mains'l.

I hadn't seen a great Shakespeare production in a very long time, and I hadn't seen The Tempest – one of my very favorite plays – in years. It felt good. This production made me feel good.

The Tempest has been extended through Oct. 19. For more information, visit the Classic Stage Company's official website.