Shipwrecked on Shakespeare

02/27/2010 11:45 AM |

In the opening scene of The Tempest a spectacular storm takes hold of a ship, forcing its crew and passengers to leap overboard, thereby stranding them on the island where the play's action is to take place. It's one of the rare moments in a Shakespeare play that such a narrative device takes place on stage—in Twelfth Night, for instance, the action begins when Viola washes up in Illyria after a storm shipwrecks the vessel on which she and her brother had been traveling—and has provided opportunities for countless set, sound and lighting designers to let their imaginations run wild (not to mention visual wildman Peter Greenaway).

But in the Bridge Project's production of The Tempest at BAM (playing in repertory with As You Like It through March 13), directed by Sam Mendes, the opening storm is more like a dance. The men aboard grip a staff that they flip between them, suggesting the railing of the bouncing boat, with special effects (percussion and strobe lights) at a minimum. It's an interesting piece of choreography, a poised and precise sequence at a moment that seems to demand chaos, and it's symptomatic of the production's general emotional flatness and avoidance of risk. This Tempest rarely feels more serious than a light drizzle.

To be fair, some of the production’'s problems have to do with the text itself, Shakespeare's last and one of his most challenging to read or stage. Similarly to As You Like It, it concerns a banished Duke who was usurped of his title and privilege by a brother who then banished him to the wilderness, where he's joined by his daughter. Here, the rightful Duke of Milan Prospero (Stephen Dillane) has been living on a desert island with his daughter Miranda (Juliet Rylance) for the twelve years since their banishment by his brother Antonio (Michael Thomas). The desert island ain't so bad: they have all the supplies they need, and are attended by the black slave Caliban (Ron Cephas Jones)—whose mother was a witch, of course—and the spirit Ariel (Christian Camargo), whom Prospero summons and controls because in his spare time he's become a quite capable sorcerer (duh).

The opening storm is his doing, orchestrated to bring the passengers of a passing ship—the very men who conspired to remove him from Milan—to his island. Dillane, sitting at his books while the audience reaches its seats, stands before the lights even begin to dim, dons his sorcerer’s cape (reminiscent of a certain Disney short film) and begins casting his spell on the tropical waters with a mix of weariness and sarcastic indifference, circling the round sandbox where most of the play occurs as if compelled to do so by the growing crowd rather than out of a sense of justice, self-interest or righteousness. Perfect in the role of Jacques in As You Like It, Dillane, though generally a pleasure to watch—except when he forgets his lines, which he did twice in one scene the evening I saw the show—and very effective in his deadpan comic delivery, often seems too detached or indifferent for the machinations he devises, as if regaining his Dukedom and ensuring his daughter's happiness were only half-hearted pursuits.

A similar lack of conflict or drive affects many of the other actors in this production, as though they're trudging wearily through the sand towards a goal whose attainment is never in doubt. Appropriately, then, one of the most memorable performances is Jones' as Caliban, who emerges from the sand pit, taking form from the clay of the earth. In contrast to the physical rigidity of most of his colleagues, Jones is all supple, bending limbs, coiling and unfurling postures, even his nails are overgrown and curl as if forming claws. If the other characters, as Prospero puts it, "are such things as dreams are made of," then Jones' Caliban is a nightmare vision of subterranean crawling and slithering. His performance is inventive, embodied and often surprising, blowing the play's ugly racism in our faces like a dust storm.

The two shipwrecked drunkards to whom Caliban offers his servitude in hopes of escaping the abusive Prospero, Stephano (Thomas Sadoski) and Trinculo (Anthony O'Donnell), are similarly delightful to watch, and the camaraderie that the trio of actors develops gives this production some much-needed momentum while other ensembles, particularly Antonio and his men, provide none. The excellent Christian Camargo is also a pleasure to watch as Ariel, a tempered, ethereal figure that he injects with hints of longing and sorrow. This lends his exchanges with Prospero a surprising intimacy, one not always present in the father-daughter moments that the latter shares with Miranda, a funny yet unwaveringly bouncy Rylance.

Once again, it's hard to determine exactly where the shortcomings of this production end and the problems inherent to the play begin, but it's telling that even at two hours and fifteen minutes with no intermission, Mendes' sleek Tempest feels overlong. Some visual experiments are surprisingly successful, like a massive video projection of Miranda's childhood home videos screened for the benefit of love-struck Ferdinand (Edward Bennett), though a striking sequence with Ariel in a bird costume and pyrotechnics booming from the shallow pool at the back of the stage rings loud and hollow. Neither quite committed to such stylized grandiosity, nor grounded in a stripped realism (what the Times' Charles Isherwood generously calls "concentrated"), this production sails languidly into the horizon, on which only a single verily threatening cloud appears all night (Jones' Caliban). It's disappointing that such a talented group of actors and artists could generate a Tempest that barely even rocks the boat.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)