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  • Theater, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Tempest. Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa E.T.C. (see Off Broadway. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Karin Coonrod. Music by Liz Swados. With Reg E Cathey. Running time: 1hr 55mins. No intermission.

Tempest: In brief

Reg E. Cathey (The Wire) stars in a musical adaptation of Shakespeare's final play, a jigsaw-puzzle drama, whose pieces include a sorcerer’s revenge, a young romance, a shipwreck, a monster, a fairy slave and two regicide plots. Karin Coonrod directs, with songs by Elizabeth Swados (Runaways).

Tempest: Theater review by Helen Shaw

If man lived by design alone, Tempest (a trimmed version of Shakespeare's romance) would be sustaining indeed. Thanks to a clever use of La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre, Karin Coonrod's pitch-black production seems to exist not on some enchanted island but at the very bottom of the ocean, somewhere “deeper than did ever plummet sound.” If there are problems in the actual performances—a Prospero with a good voice but no authority, an ill-served Ariel, some bad clowning—at least we're left with the image of Prospero's kingdom as its own, dimly lit sunken treasure.

First, the plot. Prospero (Reg E. Cathey) commands his otherworldly servant Ariel (Joseph Harrington) to wreck a ship full of men he hates: the brother who usurped his Dukedom, Antonio (Earl Baker Jr.), his disloyal Neopolitan king Alonso (Angus Hepburn) and Alonso's son Ferdinand (Christopher McLinden). While these men—and a pair of drunken servants—wander around the island, the outcast magician gradually comes to realize the limitations of vengeance and the cost of power.

The show's best moment comes right at the start. The company stands in a pool of light that keeps their faces in shadow; a figure sets a metal globe swinging, which sends pinpricks of light careering all over the walls. In the darkness, we could be desperate sailors on a damaged ship, watching the constellations reeling as the sea goes mad. Then Prospero and his daughter Miranda (a beautifully serene Miriam A. Hyman) step forward…and the real trouble starts.

The audience sits on three sides of the barnlike space, its vastness sunk in shadow. Set designer Riccardo Hernandez paints a strange series of white lines on the black floor (a wizard's geometry?) and keeps the musicians lost back beyond the proscenium. Coonrod uses the balconies and crossovers so that actors often seem to rise up from under our seats (Slate Holmgren's Caliban does some effective hidden grumbling) or to hover overhead. Genius designer Christopher Akerlind makes the light struggle down to meet the actors: his use of backlighting and smoke make an empty room seem somehow labyrinthine and strange. Illumination should therefore be provided by the text. And yet, despite a sturdy ensemble, nearly all of whom can speak verse, it isn't.

You can feel thought itself, thick as fog, swirling through this production. Coonrod's signature is this deeply considered quality; in previous shows (the Public's Love's Labors Lost, New York Theater Workshop's Everything That Rises Must Converge) ideas rush almost audibly through the action. You know this director has reasons for every choice: There's a logic behind the every-hour-is-midnight aesthetic, there's clearly a motive somewhere for the Neopolitans' white high heels. (Oana Botez makes the sumptuous, but sometimes weird, costumes.)

The trouble lies in the way these choices sit on the actors themselves, how thoughts meet flesh. Cathey, for instance, must jam his feet into some white pumps when Prospero decides to return to Milan, and his discomfort in them undercuts the moment's gravity. Similarly, Liz Swados's eerie compositions—amelodic, wandering, often grating—establish a genuinely alien atmosphere, yet once they're forced onto poor Ariel (a 15-year-old dancer) they become torture. Harrington struggles to perform Swados's non-songs, turning his scenes into awkward nonsense. (Choreographer Cara Kjellman also gives him mannered movements—emphasizing his Billy Elliot training but not the character.) Finally, as gorgeous as it is, the unrelieved darkness casts a pall over scenes that Shakespeare wrote as comic. The two clowns (the usually excellent Tony Torn and Liz Wisan) scream their lines, overwhelmed in trying to lift an oppressive atmosphere.

Yet, despite these real concerns, Coonrod's production may reveal things about The Tempest you've forgotten. Even after seeing it numerous times live or on film, you might be surprised to discover Prospero's craft isn't entirely wholesome, that he's a protagonist you should seriously distrust. Lines ring differently in this frightening cave, and your sympathies start to slide away from the man who brought us here. “Graves at my command have waked their sleepers,” the exiled Duke brags, forgetting that isn't the sort of thing good mages do. The whole room seems to suddenly be one of those graves, and we the drowsing. Despite its many flaws, Coonrod's Tempest does sometimes dabble in its own black magic; how lucky that it's just in time for Halloween.—Theater review by Helen Shaw

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