Karin Coonrod’s production of Shakespeare’s Tempest, at the Ellen Stewart Theatre until November 2, is clear and accessible, but its reimagining of the play isn’t bold enough and, at times, it seems slightly silly.  A feminist statement might have been in the making, but even a Cub Scout can tell you that it’s not a good idea, for either men or women, to wear high heels on a desert island, after a shipwreck.  Costume designer, Oana Botez, has an eye for Renaissance ruffles and shaded, patterned fabrics—and their first appearances remind of Dali.  The surrealist interpretation feels soft, however, because this version seems indebted to Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (that show, too, included surrealism, especially in its hard and nightmarish second act–which was itself indebted to the writings of critic Jan Kott).  Tempest’s opening also uses a rising pin-pricked globe, a simple, yet fantastical lighting effect, which is perfect for Shakespeare—but, perhaps, it’s too close to the opening of the Taymor production, which used a levitating Puck.

Elizabeth Swados is so important to theatre—and La Mama—that one longs for a real, new musical from her, not just an assemblage of sound scraps (this reviewer has not seen La Mama Cantata).  Her violin bows on glass are intriguing and her mandolins are reminiscent of Prokofiev’s “Morning Serenade” from Romeo and Juliet, but the score feels as if it’s a freelance gig, and too ADD (as did her work for Federico Restrepo’s Urban Odyssey). That said, it’s always intriguing to have a cast member intoning behind your ear, for stereophonic effect.

Reg E Cathey makes a fine Prospero, the deposed Italian duke, but the show is not complex enough to allow him to illuminate all of the facets of his character.  You’ll probably feel this way about other talented cast members, working on various frequencies, from Miriam A. Hyman (Miranda) to Slate Holmgren (Caliban). Joseph Harrington’s Ariel, an evolved Puck in Russian peasant wear, dances his part, which might be too arty for some—and which can slow the pacing. (The Tempest may be an evolved A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in fact.) At its best, the production comes across as fun, loose, do-your-own-thing Shakespeare—but it’s larger vision and meaning seem small.  Coonrod can stage for three sides of a long playing area; she does not require an elaborate set; and she makes use of everyday objects (she probably squirts too much water with her clowns, but her chalk circles, drawn around the characters, are a tiny surprise).

Ellen Stewart herself might have had questions about this Tempest—she so clearly did not want a theatre of language.  The talents involved here would, of course, know of her preference for the visual. Likewise, with Shakespeare: to simplify the play, to iron out its mystery, is like declawing a lion.  What kind of brave, new world is that?

© 2014 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

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