Theater Review: Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ at the Delacorte


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Oct 14, 2023

Theater Review: Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ at the Delacorte

This is not a review of The Tempest. Well, no, it is. It can’t help it. But I’d like to take an airy spirit’s-eye view for a moment and, before boarding the king’s ship, pause. Because to talk about

This is not a review of The Tempest.

Well, no, it is. It can’t help it. But I’d like to take an airy spirit’s-eye view for a moment and, before boarding the king’s ship, pause. Because to talk about this Tempest, one must first talk about the larger project to which it is in service. And the play is — despite the ebullient production’s focus on themes of breaking free from various bonds — in service. Shakespeare’s text, arguably the playwright’s only original story, is a public-domain scaffold on which to build the annual culmination of the Public Works program.

This isn’t a judgment; it’s simply a fact. Public Works — which Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis consistently describes in his onstage preshow announcements as “the most important program we do” — is now just over a decade old and as exuberant and song-and-dance-filled as ever. Founded in 2012 by director Lear deBessonet and now helmed by Tempest director Laurie Woolery (she directed As You Like It for Public Works in 2017 and will next head the Public’s Manahatta), Public Works isn’t just a show: It’s a massive community-centered arts initiative. It combines year-round workshops and classes with potlucks and partnerships with eight different organizations across New York, from a domestic-workers union to a foundation that works to build supportive communities for military vets. The enormous casts of the summer spectaculars that Public Works stages at the Delacorte in Central Park feature a core of professional actors buoyed by an ensemble of more than a hundred community members — “nurses, firefighters, retirees,” said Eustis in his remarks, adorable 5-year-olds, octogenarians, break-dancers! The founding principle of Public Works is that artistry isn’t the reserve of a talented few but a universal birthright. Every soul has imaginative potential, longs to express itself, and deserves a caring, inspiring environment in which to do so.

Who could argue with that premise? Who would want to? If an artistic endeavor should be assessed solely by the purity of its intentions — or, even more meaningfully, on the probable net good it’s putting into the world — then Public Works productions probably shouldn’t be critiqued at all. The project’s utopian bona fides are unassailable.

Its productions, however, are not. And as delicate as it can be to parse intention and outcome — the thing that’s meant and the thing that’s made — it’s also, in our era of fearing and flattening nuance, a necessity. If artistry is a birthright, then so too is the ability to grapple with what’s complex, ambivalent, and insoluble. But this Tempest doesn’t demand such an effort, not from its ensemble and not from its audience. In tone and temperament, it owes much more to Disney than to Shakespeare. Whether it moves you will likely depend on how much love (and/or tolerance) you have for each of those strange bedfellows.

To be fair, The Tempest as presented by Public Works is avowedly an adaptation. In fact, it’s a full-blown musical. With original music and lyrics by Benjamin Velez and choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher, Woolery’s Tempest still tells the story of ousted-duke–slash–sorcerer Prospero (the powerhouse singer and erstwhile Angelica Schuyler Renée Elise Goldsberry), but its tools are more crescendo and kick line than empty space and iambic pentameter. Some of Shakepeare’s text is preserved, but the production’s engine is its songs, and that engine is fueled by earnestness and schtick.

Velez’s tunes are solidly Contemporary Musical Theater 101: pulsing, intermittently poppy, formulaic. There’s a sleazy jam for the villains, Prospero’s scheming brother, Antonio (Anthony Chatmon II), and his equally treacherous if somewhat dimmer wingman, Sebastian (Tristan André). There’s a romantic, mildly hip-hoppy meet-cute ditty for the young lovers, Prospero’s teenage daughter, Miranda (Naomi Pierre), and her shipwrecked beau, Ferdinand (Jordan Best), in which they blush and shimmy and tell each other, “I’m vibin’ on to you.” There’s a big ol’ rollicking comedy number for the drunken clowns Stephano (Joel Perez) and Trinculo (I saw Anthony J. Garcia, though the role is usually played by Sabrina Cedeño). And there are plenty of intense, sincere hero’s-journey tunes for Prospero. There’s even a pining-misfit anthem for Caliban (Theo Stockman), the disgruntled “monster” who’s forced to fetch and carry for the sorcerer.

It’s not just that none of these tunes sticks for long in your head; it’s that they almost all call to mind other, catchier songs. Thanks to Prospero’s musical mullings over whether she would ever be able to “let go” — of her daughter, of her desire for vengeance — I walked out of the show humming the Oscar-winning anthem of a different spell-casting heroine. Mash up “Be Prepared” and “Easy Street” and you pretty much end up with Antonio and Sebastian’s bad-guy bop. Listen to Caliban croon, “How can I be sure if I’m a monster or a man?” and you may find yourself distracted by echoes of Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. In his drunken celebration of his own royal aspirations, Perez’s Stephano even goes so far as to sing, with an enormous wink, “To life! L’chaim!”

That particular bit of referential cheekiness might perhaps have turned out charming if it weren’t drowning in a sea of ham and cheese. The poor clowns in this Tempest have nothing to push against, so they end up just pushing. When so much of the play takes such a waggishly comedic tone, where’s the need for comic relief? During their scenes, Perez and Garcia are working hard for a scattering of mostly tepid laughs. Though their big showstopper doesn’t exactly stop the show, they must be relieved when they get to it — and so are we. At least it makes for a break from that special brand of awkwardness that is Shakespeare that’s not landing.

But why shouldn’t it land? That’s the question. If one is going to stick with Shakespeare’s language even partially, then why not prioritize the poetry and prose as much as the power pop? Why not strive for the play to sing in every instant? Woolery’s actors dutifully make their way through the text (Chatmon’s Antonio and Susan Lin’s kindly adviser, Gonzalo, in particular have an ear for its rhythms), but the overall progress feels tentative, the territory underexplored. There’s no reason that Goldsberry, with her boundless charisma and her ability to find all the shapes and textures of a song, should feel hemmed in when the verse becomes spoken. Confidence in meaning, joy in the mouthfeel of words, the alchemy of authenticity and artifice — these are all things that musical theater and Shakespeare should share in the performance. But in this Tempest, the unsung text also feels unloved. It’s a stilted conveyor of plot rather than a treasure trove of gifts for actors and audience alike: a carnival of the ridiculous and a conduit for the sublime.

Perhaps it’s ill spirited to want a project of this nature — clearly a gargantuan logistical undertaking and, for its participants, at least ostensibly a real source of joy — to do more. But why should it, when so much more is offered by the material at hand? That material isn’t just Shakespeare; it’s the infinite potential of the production’s massive ensemble and the wide-open Delacorte stage. Costume designer Wilberth Gonzalez has the most fun: Alonso (Joel Frost), the shipwrecked king of Naples, and his gang of courtly cronies get leather-daddy takes on Elizabethan silhouettes; Stephano, who drunkenly dreams of kingship, wears a clever little Jughead-esque crown; and Jo Lampert’s lithe, mischievous Ariel (Prospero’s shape-shifting spirit servant) gets to rock an array of ensembles that all feel as if they might have belonged to the MCU’s Loki.

The costumes bring the zazz, and with so many people constantly and colorfully onstage, I sometimes found myself wondering why the production hadn’t leaned further into its ensemble as its living architecture. It’s moving to watch the company members, often by the dozen, act as both witnesses to and participants in the story. Their shifting tableaux are more compelling than Alexis Distler’s set, which reminded me more of The Wizard of Oz than The Tempest. On one side of the stage, housing the band, is the dilapidated façade of a suburban home on a tilt, as if dropped from the sky. In the middle is an open barnlike house frame that says “craft brewery” or “Vermont wedding venue.” (Is it the same house from a different perspective? What does the house mean? How does its modernity correspond to the playfully periodish costumes? I couldn’t tell you.) Then, on the other side of the stage, are some sinister-looking trees. I kept waiting for them to throw apples.

Sure, the set here is acting as background — it’s easily put into soft focus. But the feeling of things not quite fitting together, despite the steady current of enthusiasm, persists past the production design. It lingers inside the friction between the play’s content and the show’s commitment to posi vibes. The synopsis in the program tells us that “this adaptation of The Tempest explores the power of choosing compassion over retribution.” That’s fair. The story is about that — and it’s about how damnably hard that is and how that choice, for someone who has built their whole life on the sustaining power of anger, comes at a cost.

The Tempest is an artist’s farewell. As Shakespeare’s last play written without younger, hipper co-writers, it ends with a magician giving up her (or, in the original, his) magic: “I’ll break my staff,” says Prospero. “And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book.” There’s something sad and rich and strange going on here: Prospero’s rage is linked to her powers, her ability to summon and create, and both are linked to her mortality. Shakespeare is examining the artistic urge in both its light and its darkness, and he is contemplating what becomes of the artist when the making stops. When Prospero, having finally renounced her desire for revenge, tells us she plans to leave the island where she has been in exile — “And thence retire me to my Milan, where / Every third thought shall be my grave” — she means it. The cost of Prospero’s forgiveness may be her own life.

We can’t possibly hear the full weight of these words when Goldsberry speaks them. It’s not her fault; the production asks her for standard musical-theater-heroine vibrancy and vitality, and she delivers. She radiates the healthy glow of a fulfilled journey of self-discovery. And truly, though she sings to us throughout the play about the “rage that lives inside of me,” we never really experience its smoldering, soul-warping force. There’s an incongruity here between the story we’re told — Prospero is consumed by bitter fury and finally learns to forgive — and the story we consistently receive through tune and tone, which sets up Prospero as a caring mom who’s trying her best with a pretty decent sense of humor and, clearly from the get-go, the capacity for compassion. This dissonance doesn’t ruin the show’s party, but it does create a sensation that’s all too common in productions of Shakespeare, musical or not: the creeping suspicion that, at bottom, this stuff doesn’t really make sense after all, that we’re absolved of really trying to understand it. This phenomenon also rears its head when an actor — here, Perez as Stephano — half-heartedly approaches a Shakespearean joke, then quickly jumps away from it with a shrug and a mug to the audience. I know, says this gesture. I don’t really get it either. So let’s get a laugh out of judging it together.

These plays aren’t perfect, and they aren’t sacrosanct. There’s plenty in them that’s difficult, archaic, wonky, even downright fucked-up — plenty that may need cutting, adjusting, adapting, or reconsidering with each new production. But they are gettable. And when they’re courageously elucidated in all their vast complexity, their wise foolery, and moral intricacy, they are incomparable.

Public Works has so much to admire. Its spirit is unfailingly generous and hopeful. So I remain hopeful too. I hope for the fusion of bighearted, inclusive, communal visions with nuanced approaches to complex, bottomless plays. I hope for productions whose joys are not lessened but are in fact deepened by the difficult things they ask of us. I hope, I suppose, for brave new worlds.

The Tempest is at the Delacorte Theater through September 3.