Guerrilla theater must prepare itself for anything. Broadway houses can close their doors to the sounds of police sirens, noisy airplanes, and cell phone conversations, but the Coney Island Boardwalk -- where this Tempest is being staged -- doesn't afford that luxury. While Trinculo and Stephano toast their heaven-sent booze, they should also raise a glass to the patience of their company.
Pour another goblet down the hatch of whomever chose the performance location: It's easy to imagine Prospero's deserted island with the waves of the Atlantic smacking the shore in the distance. Although it's far from isolated, the stretch of boardwalk around 20th Street is comfortably distanced from the bustling Astroland Park and Keyspan Stadium. On its landward side, there's a closed funhouse designed like an ancient castle. The Queen of Naples, Alonsa, stands there with her shipwrecked crowd, a reminder of the throne she has lost. (It should be mentioned that The Tempest's original displaced monarch was the King Alonso, gender-reassigned for the purposes of this production. Prospero's brother, Antonio, also gets a new sexual identity through the character Antonia.)
In this eversion, the play begins when Alonsa and Antonia banish Prospero and his daughter Miranda to a nameless island. Antonia steals her brother's rank to become the Duchess of Milan, a province that develops a newfound fraternity with Naples. Prospero takes his revenge by having his sprite, Ariel, conjure a storm that sends the royal backstabbers to his new land; they and a slew of bystanders find themselves at different parts of the island as stories of love, betrayal, and redemption unfold.
Just what those stories are is difficult to define without rambling; The Tempest doesn't fall into the neat category such as comedy, tragedy, or history play. Some who focus on Miranda and Ferdinand's love call the play a romance, but that label ignores the attempted regicides, swindles, and deuce dealings of the subplots. Lauren Edgar matches the meandering plot with mobile stage direction. Having her actors lead the audience to different parts of the boardwalk for different scenes, she makes a challenging work of classical theater physically challenging on the audience. It's a smart device: This style of performance doesn't let theatergoers sit back and disengage. Edgar and company make us work in order to enjoy their show.
But Edgar shouldn't uncork the bubbly just yet. Whereas her direction soars in initiative, it sinks in discipline. Toward the beginning of the play, she has one actor play ball with the audience during Prospero's important expository monologue. She then allows Katie Merg to interpret Ariel as a child without her Ritalin. Although Merg's boundless energy and countless mannerisms do bring the character to dynamic life, they ultimately prove distracting.
The performances seem like a function of lax direction, in that the characters often seem interesting but seldom sharp. Trinculo (Jonathan Chase) and Stephano (Paco Tolson) are believable lushes when not snapping into sobriety. Ilana Powers communicates Alonsa's distress over her lost son well, but she overplays the character's royal dignity. Barry Ford's Prospero, by contrast, demonstrates a studied precision that comes from years of experience. His interpretation may not be as unique as those of his castmates, but it's refreshingly clear even when the production becomes muddled.
"Muddled" is one criticism in particular that guerrilla theater should seek to avoid. Street theater starts off at a disadvantage in that any number of distractions can disrupt a show, but it also has a giant benefit in that no tech crew needs to simulate reality. In this case, the ocean provides the sound of waves; the shore provides the sand; and the city of New York provides the boardwalk. On the day I saw The Tempest, chance provided two drunken hecklers who mirrored the play's action. The trick for a traveling theater is to roll with the punches rather than swinging wildly. Often as chaotic as the flashing lights of the nearby carnival, this Tempest is more of a Cyclone.
[Editor's Note: Some performances of The Tempest are performed at Hudson River Park and Riverside Park.]