It begins with a thunderbolt. To some, that may foreshadow a show of overwrought visuals, noise and spectacle, but here in this case, it is the exact opposite. The Classic Stage Company’s production of The Tempest is simplistic, understated and above all else, extremely elegant.
One of Shakespeare’s final works, The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, the Duke of Milan, who lives on an island with his daughter Miranda. They washed ashore during a shipwreck years ago, when Prospero’s brother had tried to kill him in order to usurp his power. Now, the men who conspired against Prospero years ago have landed on the island themselves, after being caught in a horrific storm that Prospero created. Madness and frivolity, as well as mistaken identities and several instances of magic ensure, as Prospero works with the spirit Ariel in order to exact his revenge and right the wrongs that were done years ago.
Staged in the intimate theater on 13th Street, The Tempest is approached with a minimalistic simplicity that is both refreshing and stimulating. The set consists of nothing more than a pile of sand in the center of the stage with a panel hung over it. Different settings appear on the panel to inform the audience of where the scene takes place. Prospero and Miranda, as well as their slave Caliban and Ariel, are clothed in white from head to toe (the exact same shade as the sand they stand upon). The members of the Royal Court who find themselves on the island are clothed in classic garments, which this critic must describe as a refreshing change after having seen various modernized productions of Shakespeare recently.
It is not the use of visuals that stimulate this production, but rather the use of music. Various melodies and songs are featured and not only do they enhance the mood and further the plot, but they are purely and simply beautiful. Ariel is played by Angel Desai, who gives the spirit a blithe energy and fiery core and who also happens to possess a beautiful voice and skill on the violin. She lures the shipwrecked men onto the shores of the island with song, and many times lurks around them, singing melodies that confuse or guide them, depending on her orders from Prospero. The orchestrations are simple, delicate and absolutely beautiful to hear.
They are not the only music in the production, however. Every word of the script sounds like music as spoken by a cast of such talent and caliber. Each and every member of the cast is stunning, and as an ensemble, they combine seamlessly onstage. Elisabeth Waterston’s Miranda is spirited but also gentle and slightly nervous. As Caliban, Nyambi Nyambi possesses a simplicity and desperation that made this critic uneasy to witness. Stark Sands is forthright, honest and handsome as Ferdinand, and Yusef Bulos is perfectly cast as Gonzaelz, the honest adviser to the King. And Tony Torn and Steven Rattazzi, as Triculo and Stephano, the King’s jester and drunken butler, are outstanding. Their humor and antics are hyped to just the right level, but not overdone. They glibly plot and scheme as they stumble about the island, and although their intentions are less than good, it is difficult to not sympathize with them slightly, even as they plot to overthrow Prospero.
It would take more than a drunken butler to do that, especially to the Prospero played by Mandy Patinkin. Clad in a flowing white robe and clutching a large staff, this Prospero is forceful, regal and absolutely magnificent. Patinkin possess the confidence and experience to make the instigator of the play’s action believable, respectful and just slightly frightening. He is thoughtful, deliberate and cautious, and also extremely powerful. However, he also infuses the magician with a fierce, yet tender, devotion and love for his daughter, which is depicted when he arranges for a mystical show to be performed for them by the spirits of the island. It concludes with a melody wishing blessings upon the couple, during which Patinkin joins on the vocals, much to the surprise and delight of both the characters and the audience.
While this production is not set in modern times, its relevance to the world of the audience watching it is undeniable. The theme of colonization is frequently addressed, as almost every character washed ashore ponders how he would rule the island, given the opportunity. Some form of deception or illusion is utilized in order to confuse almost every character in order to maintain power or control, and given the race for the most powerful office that is taking place in America right now, the forms of deception and illusion resonate especially strongly. When Prospero declares his freedom from such illusions and renounces his powers in order to enter society again, one cannot help but admire him even more.
“Torment, trouble, words and amazement find us here,” Prospero says at the end of the show. If he included the words pleasure and delight, he would describe this production perfectly.