The Tempest begins, as always, with a great storm. Instead of complicated sound effects—whooshing gales, pounding rain, waves crashing on sinking ships—the sounds simply come from the vocals of the actors and musicians. Karin Coonrod and Elizabeth Swados' uneven production of Shakespeare’s final play revels in its finer details—the awesome lighting effect of a spherical pendulum that creates a constellation effect, the amazingly diverse range of instruments used as a soundscape, the dynamic mood lighting that signals to the audience who is on stage and how exactly to feel about that.
In many ways, the story is itself uneven, and this production goes right along with it. First, you have the would-be dramatic main plot: Prospero (Reg E Cathey), former Duke of Milan, is betrayed by his brother Antonio (Earl Baker, Jr) and forced to live out his days on a deserted island with his beautiful daughter Miranda (Miriam A. Hyman), grotesque slave Caliban (Slate Holmgren), and dutiful spirit Ariel (Joseph Harrington). Prospero, a magician, conjures the tempest to strand his enemies on the island, including the complicit King of Naples Alonso (Angus Hepburn), and confront them. He splits them up, causing Alonso’s son Ferdinand (Christopher McLinden) to stumble upon the virginal Miranda and fall in love with her. There is also a subplot involving Antonio and Sebastian (Sorab Wadia), Alonso’s brother, conspiring to kill Alonso so Sebastian can be king. Most of the drama builds up without much pay off.
This Tempest goes from drama to commedia dell’arte to pop musical all in a span of two hours. The commedia comes courtesy of the best two reasons to go see this play: Trinculo (Liz Wisan) and Stephano (Tony Torn). These two fools mostly just get drunk and ramble about the island, taking the misguided Caliban under their wing while they make fun of him. Wisan and Torn are a lot of fun to watch—energetic, hilarious, and captivating. They are extremely vibrant in their movements, rendering the rest of the cast way too stilted in comparison, even the balletic and ephemeral Ariel. Harrington does a great job with the music, although some of the songs are a little uninspiring. However, most of the score is quite good, and the musicians (Soo Yeon Lee, Ayeje Feamster, John Kruth) capture the rhythms and moods of the play wonderfully.
There is just not enough in The Tempest to warrant such a squall. Director Karin Coonrod has conjured up an ambitious production and the space is large enough to fill it. At times, it succeeds. However, the play’s magic seems as lost as Alonso’s ship.
The Tempest is playing at the Ellen Stewart Theatre through November 2. For tickets and information, visit https://lamama.org/tempest/
Through November 2 at the Ellen Stewart Theatre.