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Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Tempest (The Bridge Project)



By Harry Forbes

This season’s second collaboration between BAM, The Old Vic and Neal Street Productions, again under Sam Mendes’ quite wonderful direction is, if anything, even more striking than the first, “As You Like It.”

“The Tempest,” which will now run in repertory with the other play, is less frequently performed, and rather more difficult to pull off. It was Shakespeare’s last completed play, and far more enigmatic.

It is to Mendes’ credit that his production plays with such crystalline clarity, even where the Bard was vague on motivation and specific incident.

Of course, one of the great pleasures of repertory is watching first-rate actors stretch in disparate parts. Stephan Dillane, so excellent as the world-weary Jaques, assumes the heavy-duty role of Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, banished years before from his kingdom by his evil brother Antonio (Michael Thomas). Though he might, on paper, seem too young for the role, he makes the role his own.

Prospero was, years before, set to sea with his infant daughter Miranda and, through the intercession of his good counselor Gonzalo (Alvin Epstein), and with his books of magic, which he now mastered after his years of exile on this island.

He rules the place assisted by his beloved sprite Ariel (Christian Camargo) and the base and treacherous Caliban (Ron Cephas Jones). Presumably spurred by vengeance (and a desire to give his daughter a suitable mate), Prospero contrives a shipwreck which brings Antonio; Alonso (Jonathan Lincoln Fried), the king of Naples; Alonso’s son Ferdinand (Edward Bennett); Alonso’s ambitious brother Sebastian (Richard Hansell); and their heavy-drinking butler (Thomas Sadoski); jester Trinculo (Anthony O’Donnell); and others to his shores. They have been scattered at sea, however, and not all are aware of the others’ survival.

Dillane has just the right magisterial manner, and etches a loving father and benevolent ruler. He’s particularly poignant in the play’s final moments when he abjures his magic. Famous actors of the past have given Prospero’s speeches with more grandiose poetry, but Dillane’s reading of “We are such stuff as dreams are made of” and the other famous bits still touch the heart.

Surely, there is nothing more satisfying in all of drama than Shakespeare’s scenes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. “As You Like It” ends with one, but that in “The Tempest” is even more wondrous. Alonso finds the son he thought drowned, and Prospero forgives his errant brother (albeit not without a momentary hesitation), and reconciles with Alonso and those who conspired against him. Mendes stages it most beautifully here, the audience watching in rapt silence.

The American Christian Carmargo, the love-sick Orlando, is now Ariel, not the usual airy spirit, but a tall, striking presence, dressed mostly in black, but morphing into whatever Prospero calls for: one moment wearing an evening gown, the next spouting tremendous wings. He speaks the text with as much assurance as the Brits, and confirms again he’s a true classical actor.

His real-life wife Juliet Rylance plays Miranda as memorably as she did Rosalind. Her wonderment at beholding Ferdinand, the first man she’s laid eyes upon besides her father, is most delightful.

Thomas got to play both the good and bad Dukes in “As You Like It,” and he’s fine as a different sort of bad guy here.

O’Dowell (dressed by Catherine Zuber is a plaid suit) is a particular delight in his comic role, and his scenes with Sadowski are genuinely funny, not tedious as the lower-class scenes can sometimes be in Shakespeare. As they plot with Caliban (Cephas Jones who fully inhabits the bestial nature of the lustful and duplicitous creature) to overthrow Prospero. Caliban conjures a ghostly veiled image of Miranda whom he proposes Stephano will wed, one of Mendes’ clever bits of business.

Special mention must be made of veteran Alvin Epstein who, like fellow Yank Carmago, does full justice to the language, and creates a most sympathetic Gonzalo.

Mendes has brought myriad special touches to the work. When Prospero relates their past to his blindfolded daughter, Mendes has encouraged dangerously long pauses, as Prospero wrestles with his clearly painful emotions. The first encounter between Miranda and Ferdinand is deliciously staged. Later, the wedding sequence is a jewel in itself.

The backdrop of Tom Piper’s set (beautifully lit by Paul Pyant) is more or less as it was in “As You Like It,” though Prospero’s magic circle of sand is here the main playing area. At one point, Caliban emerges, miraculously, from beneath the sand.

Mark Bennett’s song settings are, as before, simply lovely. Amusingly, Sadoski enters singing the melody of the Bobby Darin hit “Beyond the Sea” paralleling Dillane’s surprising Bob Dylan turn in “As You Like It.”

Choreographer Josh Prince provides a delightful dance for that wedding sequence.

The play – one of Shakespeare’s shortest – is given without intermission. Two hours and fifteen minutes is a bit long to go without a break, but matters of thirst and bladder notwithstanding, interest never flags.

Both plays will tour Europe and Asia and open at London’s Old Vic in June.

(BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100 or www.bam.org; through March 13) Print this post

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