The Tempest @ BAM Harvey Theatre, New York

cast list
Ashlie Atkinson, Jenni Barber, Michelle Beck, Edward Bennett, Christian Camargo, Stephen Dillane, Alvin Epstein, Jonathan Lincoln Fried, Ryan Hansell, Ron Cephas Jones, Aaron Krohn, Anthony O’Donnell, Juliet Rylance, Thomas Sadoski, Michael Thomas, Ross Waiton

directed by
Sam Mendes
It’s a rather tepid Tempest that brings to a close Sam Mendes’s second season at the helm of the Bridge Project, a collaborative producing experiment wherein two productions of classics run in repertory each year – first at BAM in New York and then at the Old Vic in London.

This year’s production of As You Like It eschewed much of the comedy inherent in the play in favor of a darker interpretation, so it’s ironically fitting that the troubling underbelly of one the Bard’s “problem plays” has here been rendered rather too digestible.

The play’s opening scene – the initial shipwreck – shows promise for an interesting interpretation. Leaving behind some of the more palatable, pedestrian scenic elements of As You Like It (sets for both productions are by Tom Piper), the sets for The Tempest promise a more elemental, stripped-back approach to the material, featuring a central circle filled with sand and a pool of water upstage.
During the shipwreck, storm-ravaged captains and boatswains make ample use of wooden staffs rather than more literal settings and props; it’s a wise touch on the part of Mendes to scale back his occasionally grandiose tendencies and get back in touch with old-fashioned storytelling methods. Unfortunately, as the production progresses, the advantages of this approach buckle under the weight of some tepid acting.

At the production’s core, as Prospero, is acclaimed British stage actor Stephen Dillane, whose rather timid, unemotional acting style leaves much to desired. Though Juliet Rylance is a standout as his daughter Miranda and Edward Bennett brings muscular, varied line readings to the table as Ferdinand, Ron Cephas Jones – typically a fine stage actor – is underpowered as the slave Caliban and Christian Camargo as Ariel is a curiously earthbound sprite.

Despite some initial promise in its approach, Mendes’s Tempest represents another rather less-than-impressive production from the Bridge Project in its second year. Unlike last year’s blazing productions of The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale, the cast assembled here seem rather less suited to the task of balancing multiple roles across a repertoire of classic plays. It’s not that there aren’t moments of clarity in the acting on display here, but Mendes as director – both in choosing the plays to be presented and in bringing them to fruition – seems rather less able to make use of the strengths and weaknesses of his cast.

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