In New York Classical Theatre’s currently running version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the audience follows the action as sprites climb trees and a couple is wed in front of stunning views of New York Harbor. Like many of the company’s summer shows, The Tempest is a (free!) outdoor panoramic production, with the play’s scenes taking place in multiple locations — in this case all around Manhattan’s Battery Park — while the audience follows the actors. Apart from being outdoors and mobile, the show is largely a traditional production. Set in the period in which Shakespeare intended, the mounting is impressively executed with only a handful of props and the natural backdrops Battery Park provides.
This self-assurance is thanks, at least in part, to Sean Hagerty’s organic directing, which manages to make even the marches from location to location feel natural. His most outside-the-box choice is for the character of Ariel to be played by three young women (occasionally four when Miranda enters a trance and joins the collective), rather than a single male actor. At times, this adaptation seems to serve a functional purpose, as when the three actresses make up for the lack of props and set by using a rope to create the outline of a sinking ship. But for the most part, this decision, while easy to look past, seems to lack a purpose.
The related choice to have Miranda periodically become one of the spirit Ariel’s many entities is harder to brush off as a logistical adjustment. Presumably, Hagerty is aiming to make a point — perhaps about Prospero’s control over his daughter or Miranda’s connection to the island, but it does serve to draw attention away from the show’s brilliant performances. Mostly though, to the show’s credit, the directorial influence is imperceptible.
Though this New York Classical Theatre panoramic production is less ambitious than some (one version of Henry V actually took its audience on a boat across the harbor to Governors Island), The Tempest is satisfying in its simplicity. Shakespeare’s words are crisp, his characters compelling, and his plot absorbing. This is one of those rare performances of the bard’s work that allows his genius to shine through.