Like their characters clinging to the rails of a storm-tossed boat, the actors stand exposed to the elements in this open-air production of The Tempest. Rain. Heat. Moths. Helicopters that fly overhead just as Ferdinand, the prince of Naples, happens to say, “I hear it now above me.” Shakespeare’s play begins with a shipwreck and leads us to an island where the climate confounds nearly everyone who roams it.
I wish I could report that the company’s efforts reincarnate the challenges of Central Park into a midsummer night’s magic. Free Shakespeare is such a worthy effort that it feels mutinous to wonder, as I did watching Michael Greif’s discombobulated staging, why the bar for classical theater in New York gets set so low. Here’s one of the most familiar of Shakespeare’s plays — a dull repertory choice — with performers who seem disconnected from what they’re saying. It’s an overproduced and underwhelming mounting with no apparent point of view on the drama.
The various parties — drunken servants worshipped as masters; plotting courtiers; young lovers — barely seem to inhabit the same place, much less an island full of astounding and bewildering spirits. Sam Waterston, a Delacorte veteran, summons neither stature nor gravitas as the magician Prospero; his powers come off more perfunctory. The drama needs an omniscient overlord everyone can believe in, but in rendering the verse in eccentric rhythms, Waterston gives us a daffy old fellow rather than a statesman with a plan. The captive spirit Ariel (Chris Perfetti) is all wispiness, more of a pouter than a soul burning for freedom. Bare-chested in a harness, Perfetti looks the fairy-slave part, but it doesn’t mean much. Louis Cancelmi, as the deformed and rebellious native Caliban, embraces the disfigurement mentioned in the text, making him a tortured creature who speaks in a mewling drawl. It’s the boldest acting choice in the show, but it also blunts Caliban’s expression — one of the best parts of the drama. His native islander’s speech, declaring the injustice of his subjection, gets buried and ultimately lost — and with it go the play’s colonial dimensions.
Meanwhile we gaze at banners, hanging from upstage scaffolding, emblazoned with blown-up photos of a rough sea. It looks like a bank’s ad for the play, and somehow Riccardo Hernandez’s set acquires an air of quick-idea branding rather than spatial metaphor. When Prospero, the deposed duke of Milan, completes his magic and restores natural political order, the banners fall, revealing glimpses of the park’s green treetops in the far yonder. That’s the largest, and really the only, conceptual gesture in an otherwise remarkably literal staging.
This might be an exciting and debate-worthy failure, had the misfires resulted from some ambitious retooling of Shakespeare. Instead it’s merely conventional psychological scene-work, sloppily executed. But the Delacorte offers a wonderful space in the heart of the city, and Shakespeare in the Park reliably becomes the season’s most prominent classical drama. Given the recent successes of its parent organization, the Public Theater, might it be time to develop the Delacorte stage, too, with more unusual repertory? To turn it over to the fresher, young, adventurous talents the Public has been cultivating in its new work? A pre-show recording of artistic director Oskar Eustis emphatically declares that “this is YOUR theater.” But nothing about this dull regional-theater mounting speaks to us in 2015. Certainly there’s no theatrical magic to apprehend, however much Prospero waves his wand.
By William Shakespeare
Shakespeare in the Park
Delacorte Theater (Central Park West at 81st Street)