The Classic Stage Company is on the ascent. In recent seasons, the company has attracted the likes of Alan Cumming, Dianne Wiest, John Turturro and Frances McDormand to its stages, elevating the profile of a theatre company in operation since 1967.
Now the company has an “it” factor, presenting plays with actors who are not merely “names” but assured theatrical contenders, the most recent of whom is Mandy Patinkin, whose formidable Prospero in CSC’s current revival of Shakespeare’s The Tempest gives us reason to hope the classics can be reinvigorated on New York stages.
Patinkin, known for his roles in musicals like Sunday in the Park with George and Evita, here puts his famous timbre to beguiling use, injecting the role of Prospero with a vigor and warmth that is absolutely essential in making an audience invest not just in his grand machinations for his mysterious island but in his deep and abiding love for his daughter Miranda, here played by the gentle, slyly comic Elisabeth Waterston. With one look askance, Waterston is able to set an audience in the palm of her hand, and her performance is a marvel to behold.
The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s later works, is also one of the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays to stage effectively. The story is this. Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, has been banished to a mysterious island with his daughter Miranda, where they’ve made themselves at home. Prospero, in taking steps to dominate the island, has killed the evil native Sycorax, mother to Caliban, a slave and native to the island. Caliban and the spirit Ariel attend to Prospero, Ariel heeding Prospero’s command to shipwreck the King of Naples, Alonso, whose ship, which passes by the island, also carries Prospero’s brother Antonio – the usurping Duke of Milan – as well as Alonso’s son Ferdinand, who soon falls in love with Miranda.
The balance between the supernatural – as delineated by the presence of the spirits – with the more realistic elements of the story must be absolutely spot-on, and Brian Kulick’s production manages this splendidly. Angel Desai, whose sprightly spirit Ariel adds a mysterious, vaguely sexual allure to the proceedings, is crucial to the integrity of the production.
She and Nyambi Nyambi, whose tender, muscular Caliban is hardly the “savage and deformed native of the island” Shakespeare described him to be, are the outsiders against whom the noble Italians may be juxtaposed, their low rank demarcated by body paintings covering most of their exposed flesh. Caliban, relatively minor within the plot of the play, can be seen as a stand-in for any subjugated people, and it’s in his beady, vibrant eyes that we view the world of the play most vitally, finding possible contemporary parallels in his plight.
My one quibble with the acting on display here concerns the roles of Stefano and Trinculo, portrayed here by Steve Rattazzi and Tony Torn respectively. The comic pair, butler and jester to Alonso, are meant, through their subplot involving Caliban – in which he pledges himself as their slave – to represent imperialism through comedic relief. However, as portrayed here with broad Nathan Lane-style comedy, much of these themes are lost in slapstick. It’s not that the two don’t possess potential in their roles, but their characters, traditional Shakespeare fools, need to carry greater weight than they’re given here.
Set designer Jian Jung has utilized Classic Stage Company’s thrust space to maximum effect, placing at the center of the action an immense canvas of sky that rises and lowers, its shifting plane signifying changes in the weather in conjunction with Brian Scott’s lighting, alternately eerie and airy. From the tempestuous opening, we’re soon thrust into the spare, bright world of Prospero’s island, delineated by a square of sand, on which actors leave their footprints as the evening progresses.
Costume designs by Oana Botez-Ban define characters’ class within the production simply, with islanders wearing flowing linen garments very much unlike the regal period costumes of the members of the Italian court. Original music and sound design by Christian Frederickson also aid in the otherworldly sense of the island and its inhabitants. Frederickson has reimagined the ditties of The Tempest as deeply theatrical modern melodic compositions, and, as accompanied by Kulick’s evocative choreographic elements, their tone is just right. Angel Desai as Ariel does the bulk of the singing, but when Mandy Patinkin is finally allowed his moment to belt, it’s breathtaking, full of feathery, airborne delight.
In an off-Broadway season where Iraq seems to be of much import, it seems fitting that The Tempest should be the Shakespeare play of choice for Classic Stage’s fall season. By the play’s end Prospero has realized the error of his imperial, puppeteering ways, recognizing the merits of freedom from bondage. It’s a revolutionary theme for a play written in the early seventeenth century but one that still resonates today. Prospero’s controlling ways show parallels to early Americans’ conquering of Native Americans as well as our modern-day desire for dominance in the Muslim world.
Thankfully, however, no direct modern day parallels are drawn in Kulick’s stylish production, which refuses to be laden down with the kind of literal-minded transpositions of setting and context that have plagued recent Shakespeare productions. Instead an audience is entrusted to examine The Tempest with its own eyes, and my what a Tempest it is – full of light and music – and helmed by a glorious conductor in Patinkin. If this production is any sign, Classic Stage is a company to watch. I know I’m keeping my eyes peeled.