“The Tempest” is a difficult play, to say the least. A great grab bag of Shakespeare’s recurring themes, it encompasses the argument between the natural and the supernatural, revenge, romance, and –– plotted, if not realized –– regicide. As plays go, it’s really kind of a mess. The plot is thin and confusing; the characters’ motivations are often unclear, and Prospero’s grand revenge against those who imprisoned him on a remote island for a dozen years fizzles out, even when he has the opportunity to exact it. The play has challenged scholars and directors for centuries because for all its flaws, it is deeply romantic, lyrical, and highly theatrical.
The powerful appeal of this play was splendidly captured in the understated and artful production by the Public Theater just concluded in Central Park. Director Michael Greif has opted for a simple and straightforward staging on a largely bare stage with a cerulean sea projected on a cyclorama upstage to frame the action and locate it on the remote island where Prospero and his daughter Miranda have lived in exile since being usurped from the court of Milan. Their only company are the sprite Ariel and the monster Caliban, whom Prospero deposed when he took over the island and reviles for having tried to rape Miranda.
But when Prospero’s brother, who dethroned him, and the King of Naples are returning from a wedding, Prospero raises the titular tempest that lands them on the island, where he plans to take revenge on them. But then he doesn’t. Instead, the King’s son Ferdinand falls in love with Miranda and, being the first man she’s ever met who is her contemporary, she’s more than willing to reciprocate. However, Prospero puts him to work cutting wood and such, controlling him with magic, to make him prove his worth.
There’s also a subplot with drunken clowns whom Caliban encourages to overthrow Prospero and make themselves island royalty. There’s also another murder plot among the castaways — it seems like everyone is hot to be the Duke of Milan. In the end, Ferdinand is freed and gets to marry Miranda. Prospero reveals himself and gets to go back to being Duke, and everyone leaves the island –– except Ariel, who is released from servitude to Prospero, and Caliban, who is left alone, which is all he really wanted. Happily ever after.
Greif’s judicious use of theatricality — an acrobat here, a contortionist there, a full on storm at the opening — allows the language of the play to dominate. It’s some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful, tinged with hope and melancholy, word play in the comic roles, and Caliban’s rougher vernacular. It’s a bold move to allow the language to do the heavy lifting in a theatrical environment where machines dominant (the same tactic that made “The Visit” earlier this year so poetic), and if this production is quieter than others I’ve seen of the play, it is also more heartfelt. Here, the characters have an authenticity beneath the poetry that is sometimes obscured in other stagings.
Greif has an excellent cast to work with. Sam Waterston as Prospero fills every moment with interesting choices. I have seen Prosperos who were more Lear-like — or Gandalf-like — but Waterston’s Prospero is a fallible man with conflicting emotions who only incidentally has magical powers. It’s fascinating how he lets his fantasy of revenge slip away, just as he casts off his magical powers and plans instead to return to the life he knew.
Francesca Carpanini is a lovely Miranda, and her beau Ferdinand is played with clarity and confidence by Rodney Richardson. In the comic roles, Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the jester Trinculo and Danny Mastrogiorgio as the butler Stephano manage their tricky turns with ample charm and skill.
The most interesting performances of the evening, however, come from Louis Cancelmi as Caliban and Chris Perfetti as Ariel, representing the elements of earth and air, respectively, with their miens and movements in line with their natures. Both bound to Prospero, costume designer Emily Rebholz has fitted each with a leather harness as a symbol of their captivity.
Michael Friedman’s original music is well matched to the overriding simplicity of the production, and much of it performed live by percussionist Arthur Solari, an echo of what would probably have been common in an Elizabethan staging.
On the night I saw this production, a gathering mist as the sun went down gave way to a light rain, but one that passed in time. While it lingered, it added to the wonderful environmental feel of this production, and, if anything, required the audience to listen yet more closely to the language of this perplexing and always moving play. After all, the language is where Shakespeare’s magic reigns, and Greif’s choice to emphasize that was both rewarding and revelatory.
THE TEMPEST | Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park | Delacorte Theater, entrance at 81st St. & Central Park W. or 79th St. & Fifth Ave. | Jul. 2, 3 & 5, 8 p.m. | Free; information for obtaining tickets at publictheater.org | Two hrs., 45 mins., with intermission