We gave it a C+
Signs of summer’s arrival in New York: the inescapable Mister Softee ice cream truck jingle, furnace-like subway-platform conditions, and—more enjoyably—the Public Theater’s annual (and free!) Shakespeare in the Park. This season opens with Next to Normal director Michael Greif’s take on The Tempest (at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater through July 5), the Bard’s meaty tale rife with political intrigue, familial strife, mystical machinations, and plenty of Sturm und Drang.
The once and future Duke of Milan, Prospero (Sam Waterston), is in exile, ruling a small island with only his teenage daughter, Miranda (Francesca Carpanini) and his slaves, including crude Caliban (Louis Cancelmi, late of the Public’s Father Comes Home From the Wars Pts. 1–3) and sprightly spirit Ariel (Chris Perfetti, Sons of the Prophet), for company. His usurper brother (Cotter Smith) is aboard a ship with the King of Naples (Charles Parnell), his son, Ferdinand (Rodney Richardson), and various lords, councilors, and hangers-on; in hopes of exacting revenge, the magician conjures a storm to bring the vessel within reach and, in the aftermath of the shipwreck, contrives to marry his daughter off to Ferdinand and regain his rightful position of power.
As Prospero, a strident Waterston eschews deeply felt emotion in favor of righteous indignation, with more than a few echoes of Law & Order EADA Jack McCoy—he doesn’t get angry, he just gets loud. His character’s disgust for Caliban (played with great physicality and commitment by Cancelmi) is well conveyed, but his treatment of the slave reads as overly cruel and unwarranted. Prospero’s ostensible affection for his other captive, Perfetti’s melancholy, graceful Ariel, isn’t quite believable, and his daughter, literally awarded to the prince of Naples as a prize, seems little more than a pawn in his quest; if there’s any fatherly love there, it’s a mere afterthought. Newcomers Carpanini and Richardson portray young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand by the book, with straightforward earnestness and innocent charm, but under the direction of Michael Greif, the rest of the supporting cast picks up the slack.
Although Cancelmi and Perfetti are both magnetic, the comic relief steals the show: Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family), obviously in his element, shrugs off jester Trinculo’s lines with nonchalance and effortless timing, while Danny Mastrogiorgio (Rocky), as a drunken butler who aspires to power, hiccups hilariously through the proceedings.
You couldn’t ask for a better setting for The Tempest than the open-air Delacorte Theater, and the simple, effective staging only accentuates the location’s natural beauty: a smattering of rocks to indicate the island’s terrain, flashing lights and undulating greenish-black banners to convey stormy seas, and a metal transom that the cast shimmies up and down with ease. Cirque-esque elements—a contortionist does a walking backbend while carrying a tray of fruit on her stomach, an aerial performer navigates a length of silk with aplomb—lend a modern touch, and though the majority of the costumes are de rigeur, the two slaves’ bondage-evoking harnesses provide a frisson of excitement. Percussionist Arthur Solari deserves special mention for his ferocious contribution to the production’s sound, his instruments standing in for everything from crashing thunder to swords clashing. Still, these positives aren’t enough to distract from the production’s hollow center, and even with all of the turmoil, it ends up as more of a light shower than a Tempest. C+
(Tickets are free; for more information on how to obtain them and directions to the venue, visit www.publictheater.org)