There is something strange brewing in the Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest – and I’m not talking about the weather. It is, rather, the actor playing the man causing all that meteorological mayhem.
As Prospero, Public Theater veteran Sam Waterston is perhaps not a surprising choice, and yet ultimately he is something of a question mark on stage. When he starts his lines, it is never quite clear how, or when, they will end. Rather than rage and roar, he is more prone to kvetch and kvell. In fact, with his salt and pepper beard, his loose-fitting button down, his leather sandals and his tallis-like “magic garment,” Waterston frequently comes across more like a stressed rabbi than a stormy sorcerer.
The Tempest, of course, is a play about a magic of a more metaphorical nature, and indeed, Prospero is meant to be a more earthly, intellectual enchanter than, say, Sycorax, the witch who is the slave Caliban’s mother. Waterston’s choices may be signals of a more complicated reading of the role than we’re used to, or they may be the limitations of a talented actor nonetheless ill suited for the role. Which is it? Well, in all this excitement, one might be forgiven for losing track.
There is excitement to be experienced in this production of The Tempest, and it’s in large part due to Waterston’s exceptional cast mates. As Caliban, Louis Cancelmi gives a superbly physical performance. His knees are nearly always bent, his chest leads as he limps across the stage, his speech sputters and spurts, and his eyes nearly bug out of his head at times. As the jester Trinculo and the drunken butler Stephano, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Danny Mastrogiorgio, respectively, are endlessly entertaining. The three of them, as a group, are a delightfully odd trio from their very first moment together, a quintessentially Shakespearean gag in which Trinculo and Caliban are mistaken for a four-legged monster.
Chris Parfetti, meanwhile, is a delightful Ariel – light and sprightly in his movement, delicate in his verbal delivery. Much of the character’s magic must also be credited to the man providing the spirit’s otherworldly xylophonic musical accompaniment. Sitting in his booth off to the side of the stage, that man is responsible for creating much of the ambiance in the play, including the frequent clashing and clanging storms. Often playing several instruments at once, his is a difficult, essential task. His name is Arthur Solari and I think it is fair to say he is the hardest working percussionist in New York theater at the moment.
Under Michael Greif’s direction, The Tempest is full of pleasures both auditory and visual. There is a fabulous supporting cast of men and women who turn into a chorus of heavenly sirens or a troupe of fruit-bearing Dionysian revelers as the situation demands. There is a terrifying, winged monster (Ariel exercising his shape shifting prowess) created through simple set pieces and vocal manipulation. With just the subtlest of suggestions, Shakespeare’s mysterious, fantastical island comes to life.
But as with all Shakespeare in the Park productions, the greatest pleasure may perhaps be found in the Delacorte — and, moreover, Central Park — itself. Stagecraft is a powerful force, but how can it top those moments when, as Prospero fumes, the wind actually picks up and the trees actually sway, or when, during a moment of peril, an emergency siren actually sounds somewhere off in the distance? It’s probably fitting that the greatest effects, like the one-of-a-kind theater experience they serve, are free.