If you close your eyes during Karin Coonrod's Tempest at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre, you can hear magic all around you. Maintaining much of the Bard's original text, Coonrod has enlisted composer Elizabeth Swados (Runaways) to create original music and lyrics for Shakespeare's tale of sorcery, revenge, and romance. Although many of the song-and-dance numbers feel shoehorned in, the ambient sounds with which Coonrod and Swados underscore the play make for a very intimate theatrical experience.
Prospero (Reg E. Cathey), the rightful Duke of Milan, has been overthrown by his treacherous brother Antonio (Earl Baker Jr). While in exile, Prospero uses magic to rule over an enchanted island. He is joined by his daughter Miranda (Miriam A. Hyman) and a magical servant named Ariel (Joseph Harrington). As Antonio returns from a wedding in Tunis, Prospero raises a storm that causes him to be shipwrecked on the island, along with the King of Naples, Alonso (Angus Hepburn) and his slimy brother, Sebastian (Sorab Wadia). Alonso's handsome son Ferdinand (Christopher McLinden) is also with them, and immediately catches the eye of Miranda. Prospero wants revenge, but Miranda wants romance.
Coonrod impressively uses the entirety of the Ellen Stewart Theatre, taking advantage of its depth and multiple levels to stage the enormity of Shakespeare's story. The audience is seated in a thrust formation, with space behind the seating for the actors to travel. Giant industrial fans occupy the upstage wall of Riccardo Hernandez's geometric and austere set, promising to blow us away in the next squall. Despite the theater's hugeness, Coonrod's staging feels quite intimate. She creates Prospero's storm with a glowing metallic pendulum that offers the only source of light in the show's opening moments (lighting by Christopher Akerlind). It swings back and forth, creating the nausea-inducing churn of the sea.
This thrilling scene fades to a much calmer one between Miranda and Prospero, taking place on a diamond within a square, painted on the black floor of the stage. Like a bishop on a chessboard, Prospero moves diagonally along the lines as he and his daughter engage in some overly long exposition that is difficult to follow in Cathey's habitually shouty, one-note delivery of the text.
For the most part, Shakespeare's verse takes a backseat to the visual and aural aspects of the production. The words often feel dead and obligatory in the mouths of the actors, even as they are underscored by sound that is very much alive.
Baker is the exception, reveling in every syllable of Antonio's villainy with exquisite diction. As the comic relief B-plot characters Stephano and Trinculo, Tony Torn and Liz Wisan stand out for their over-the-top bawdiness. Blowing them all out of the water in terms of memorable performances is Slate Holmgren, who makes a perfectly disgusting Caliban (Prospero's wayward slave). Covered in grime and dirt, at one point he circles the room and licks the feet of unsuspecting audience members.
Swados underscores each scene with inventive sound and music. The cast stands behind the audience and produces a guttural vocal for Caliban. Black-clad musicians move through the space bowing what appear to be sawed-off birdcages (in lieu of stringed instruments), making a spine-tingling sound to represent Prospero's magic. These moments work far better than the full musical breaks, which feel a bit amateurish: At one point, Ariel does a soft-shoe while the musicians snap behind him, a moment that feels completely out of step with the rest of the production.
Oana Botez's creative but sometimes perplexing costumes reinforce this feeling. She is clearly working on a shoestring budget and turns out an impressive array of looks using the thinnest of fabrics. Shoes always being a difficult problem for costume designers, she has outfitted the Italian courtiers in white pumps, some with stiletto heels. The result is a goofy kind of Shakespearean drag.
Still, at around 100 minutes, this is an efficient and highly enjoyable adaptation of The Tempest. Coonrod and Swados have a talent for aural storytelling that must be experienced firsthand to be believed.