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The Tempest

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 30, 2023

Renée Elise Goldsberry and Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
There are few theatergoing pleasures that can compare with the joy of attending a performance at the Public Theater's open-air Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park. It's especially true this time of year when the summer season closes with a presentation by the Public's "Public Works" program, in which the stage is populated with professional actors alongside dozens and dozens of amateurs of all ages and varying degrees of thespianic, warbling, and terpsichorean adeptness, representing the diversity of the city's five boroughs. Recall that the term "amateur" derives from the Latin word for "love," and you'll have an idea of what it is typically like to be part of an audience being bombarded with such an outpouring of love.

On the face of it, the current offering, a 90-minute musical adaptation (music and lyrics by Benjamin Velez) of Shakespeare's The Tempest, among the bard's most magic-filled plays, would seem a perfect fit for a late summer night's outing among the trees and under the stars, the clouds, and, yes, the occasional helicopter. There is certainly magic in the air. Unfortunately, there is precious little of it on the stage. And that is the great puzzlement of this production, especially when the central character is a sorcerer, Prospero, played here by Renée Elise Goldsberry, whose strong stage presence and beautiful singing voice provide the lion's share of what magic there is to be found.

Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan, has been living in exile on a remote island for 12 years with daughter Miranda (Naomi Pierre). The island is otherwise inhabited only by the monstrous Caliban (Theo Stockman) and a handful of sprites and spirits, chief among them being Prospero's servant Ariel (Jo Lampert). A mix of themes and styles comes with the territory. Shakespeare had no qualms about combining serious philosophical underpinnings with elements of a romantic love story and low comedy bits. The "heavy" theme of The Tempest, and the one that drives this production, has to do with the struggle between a desire for justice/vengeance and the greater good that can come of forgiveness and reconciliation.

On the other hand, the play also offers up a lighter-than-air romance between Miranda and a newcomer to the island, Ferdinand (Jordan Best). Happenstance has brought Prospero's enemies close to the island, and the sorcerer conjures up a storm to shipwreck the lot of them. Among them is Ferdinand, the son of one of that party, whose members wander around the island through much of the play while Prospero plots how to deal with them. Miranda and Ferdinand "meet cute" and fall immediately in love, a plot twist Prospero had not anticipated when arranging for the tempest.

Rounding things out are a series of low comedy moments provided by shipmates Stephano (Joel Perez) and Trinculo (Anthony J. Garcia), abetted by Caliban, who, lured by Stephano's stash of wine, binds himself to the pair in the hopes of breaking free of Prospero. All three performers handle these interludes nicely, but overall, the clashing styles means there is a lot to juggle in the truncated time frame. Problematically, director Laurie Woolery has not been able to keep all the pins in the air; focus on one, and the others are liable to come crashing to the ground. The production plays out as a series of self-contained set pieces, with design elements that are minimal and a score that generally comes off as narrative-driven and heavy-handed. The whole seems undercooked and scattershot, an unexpected miss that sadly comes at a time when the Delacorte is set to shut down for at least 18 months while renovations are being done. Let us hope for a "brave new world" when it reopens.

The Tempest
Through September 3, 2023
Public Theater
Delacorte Theater, 81 Central Park West, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: