Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Shakespeare notebook: The Tempest

Public Works at the Delacorte Theater
directed by Lear deBessonet
Sept. 7, 2013

The Tempest (at the Delacorte last weekend only) might showcased the biggest cast I’ve ever seen—and I’m up to nearly 2000 shows in my two decades of theatergoing. As the inaugural production of the Public Theater’s Public Works program, The Tempest engages the talents of a dozen NYC arts organizations, from gospel choirs to Japanese drummers to a NYC public school’s ballet program. The result ravishes the audience’s senses, conjuring the magic and music of Shakespeare’s drama superbly and modeling perfectly the ideal of Public founder Joseph Papp’s to stage Shakespeare for the locals.

Created by director Lear deBessonet and composer Todd Almond, this Tempest takes liberties with Shakespeare’s play but stays laudably faithful to its spirit. The duo raise the role of music and dance to the same level of importance as the script—a reasonable alteration since the script draws parallels between magic and theater, music, and dance. More radically, they alter the play such that Prospero initially sets out to avenge his political exile and only in Act 4 softens. Further, Prospero is demoted from protagonist, usurped by Ariel. Played superbly by Almond as a glam MC in white and silver, the spirit speaks modern prose rather than Shakespearean poetry. His desire for emancipation from his servitude is the show’s strongest emotional component. These alterations suggest one path forward for Shakespearean theater: not by shrifting the playwright or altering his intent but by adding to the play’s scope and vision.

The island's spirits enjoy the show
as much as the Delacorte audience
(photo credit: Joan Marcus)
The success of this Tempest, then, is mainly its conjuring of the island setting. Rather than relying mostly on scenery and lighting (and not to shortchange the respective work of designers Saunders and Micoleau), the production takes advantage of NYC’s local arts organizations. Though the island is mostly uninhabited by humans, it’s home to scores of “spirits”, played by a local choir whose members grin widely as Ariel banters with them about the foolery and complots of the island’s mortal visitors. This chorus of locals, mostly black and mostly female, wears the primary colors and flowery patterns of tropical cultures. That fashion helps to set the location and contrasts nicely with the stock doublet-and-hose of the play’s characters. Finally and most vitally, their talent for song gives life and character to the island. The company’s presence suggests that the Shakespeareans are interlopers; it’s not Prospero’s island, it’s theirs.

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