74 E. 4th Street
As perhaps the last play written by Shakespeare, The Tempest has a magisterial, august, almost removed quality, a sense of summing up and a saying farewell to all that. It is not particularly dramatic, but it has provided much fodder for academics because of its themes of colonialism, of the enslavement of indigenous people by conquerers, and the forbidden, knotty love between Caliban and Miranda. As such, it would seem like good material for a staging at La MaMa, with its proud multicultural approach and vast space, but the air of friendly collaboration at this theater and the sense of everyone working together in a warm and supportive way actually drains the material of any tension it might have.
Many of the players here are vocally limited and not too attentive to the language, so that the first scene of exposition doled out by Prospero (Reg E. Cathey) to Miranda (Miriam A. Hyman) gets pretty deadly. In the middle of all the information, when Miranda says, “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness,” I had to laugh, for there was a couple behind me who kept asking what Prospero was saying. Luckily, the actors playing the more fantastical characters run from serviceable to inspired. Joseph Harrington’s Ariel shows his beginnings as one of the boys who played Billy Elliot on Broadway: He’s all childlike balletic grace and earnest movement. And Slate Holmgren’s Caliban is properly fierce and pathetic.
Still, this production of The Tempest would be a well-meaning snooze if it weren’t for the performances of Liz Wisan as Trinculo and Tony Torn as Stephano. Wisan sends her huge comic performance out to every member of the audience, connecting with just about everyone she can as she prowls around the enormous space, and this made her especially popular with a group of extremely well-behaved pre-adolescents who seemed to be attending the play as part of a school trip. Torn, a past master of the comic grotesque, matches Wisan leer for leer and take for take, finding laughs with her where there are none, goosing the staid production as much as possible.
There’s the expected score from Elizabeth Swados—thoughtful, modest, awfully nice. You see, that’s the thing about so many productions at La MaMa. Everybody is pitching in to do a tiny and rather educational job for us, so that there is never any point where there feels like something dangerous or upsetting or threatening might happen. For The Tempest to pack the wallop it should, there needs to be more attention paid to the conflict amongst the characters, so that when Prospero gives up his power at the end, we know just what he’s giving up, and why. This Prospero seems like he would free Ariel and Caliban at the very start, so that we feel none of his struggle to let go of things, to become someone better, and without that, the play just drifts away.