The Tempest, Shakespeare in the Park
The Public's production of Shakespeare's last romance plays on themes of master and servant.
Was Shakespeare into leather? One might wonder after seeing the Public's latest Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest, now running at the Delacorte Theater, when a twinkish Ariel, played by Chris Perfetti, glides onstage, chest visible beneath a spidery black leather harness, and coos to Sam Waterston's Prospero, "All hail, great master; grave sir, hail! I come/To answer thy best pleasure."
It's interesting how well the motif suits the play, with its themes of domination and submission, of masterdom and enslavement. Waterston's Prospero uses his wand not just to cast spells but to whip the also leather-harnessed Caliban, played by the talented Louis Cancelmi. Thankfully, that's as far as director Michael Greif takes the idea, so as not to distract from the real attraction of this production, Cancelmi's Caliban.
The Tempest begins with a violent, thunderous storm at sea that shipwrecks a group of Italians on a mysterious, magic island populated by supernatural beings and strange creatures. The magician Prospero (Sam Waterston) has run things ever since he was stranded there 12 years earlier with his infant daughter, the now nubile Miranda (Francesca Capanini). Prospero orders his reluctant servant, the island spirit Ariel, to raise a storm that will wreck a ship carrying his treacherous brother Antonio (Cotter Smith), who usurped Prospero's dukedom of Milan, and Antonio's accomplice, Alonso, the King of Milan (Charles Parnell).
With the ship destroyed and its occupants washed ashore, Prospero puts his plans into action. In addition to getting revenge on his brother, he wants to marry his daughter to Alonso's honorable son, Ferdinand (Rodney Richardson). At the same time, his slave Caliban plots Prospero's downfall with the drunken butler Stephano (Danny Mastrogiorgio) and the jester Trinculo (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Magic and mishaps intertwine these events until Ferdinand and Miranda are married, Prospero decides to drown his books and make amends with Antonio, and Caliban and Ariel are freed.
Greif opens his relatively straightforward production with a splendid storm of crashing thunder (Arthur Solari on percussion), flashing lightning (designed by David Lander), and sailors swinging precariously on ship rigging. It's a thrilling prologue to the events that follow, though Waterston slows things down considerably, laboring somewhat under Prospero's longish tale of woe to Miranda. His crusty and ornery Prospero speaks with a singsong rhythm, like angry wavelets breaking on the shore.
Perfetti, on the other hand, breezes across the stage, his thin white shirt billowing like gossamer (costumes by Emily Rebholz), and speaks with a soft urgency. His presence is always felt, whether he's singing a lovely rendition of "Full Fathom Five" (music by Michael Friedman) or silently observing the other characters from a group of rocks or from the scaffolding walkway of Riccardo Hernandez's set. Yet he appears larger than life in a dark dramatic scene when he becomes a menacing harpy sent to reprimand Antonio and Alonso for betraying Prospero.
Matching Perfetti onstage are Richardson and Francesca Carpanini, both charming as the young lovers, but especially Richardson, who woos with the exaggerated ardor of a lover yet infuses his delivery with a wry humor that keeps things light rather than treacly.
It's Caliban, however, who dominates the stage. Besmirched and bare-chested beneath his harness, Cancelmi epitomizes the rebellious yet obsequious servant, body bent and angled as though always ready to receive Prospero's wand on his back, speaking with the accent of one imperfectly yet eloquently educated in a foreign tongue. In an overall ferocious performance, he embodies Caliban's rage at having his island stolen from him (Prospero is an unapologetic colonizer). Add to that some delightful tomfoolery with Mastrogiorgio as Stephano and Ferguson as Trinculo, and Cancelmi gives us a memorable portrayal of one of Shakespeare's most fascinating characters.
Greif highlights the talents of the others in his cast during the bright, colorful celebration of Ferdinand's engagement to Miranda. Tamika Sonja Lawrence as Ceres and Laura Shoop as Juno beautifully sing the scene's tunes along with the ensemble. But the magic is lost in the final act, which glides the play into port so slowly that by the time wands are broken and harnesses removed, we're eager to get ashore.