Off-Off-Broadway Theater Review: TEMPEST (La MaMa)

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by LindaAnn Loschiavo on October 10, 2014

in Theater-New York

TEMPESTUOUS AND TAME

The Tempest offers a kaleidoscope of intrigue, betrayals, political shenanigans, murderous intent, monsters, masques, mayhem, magic, and romance. Julie Taymor’s disappointing 2010 big-screen, big-budget version proved that head-spinning CGI-candy is not enough to make all of these ingredients satisfying. Working with a stripped-down stage at La MaMa, director Karin Coonrod puts her stamp on Shakespeare’s second-shortest play (after The Comedy of Errors) in ways that are both laudable and occasionally baffling. While her production oddly softens some of the play’s harsher edges, it is delightful in many other ways.

reg-e-cathey-as-prospero-in-a-scene-from TEMPEST at La MaMa. Photo by Vanessa Schonwald.

Coonrod begins with nontraditional casting. The Milanese nobles—Prospero, Miranda, and the perfidious Antonio—are played by black actors; both Trinculo, the king’s jester, and Gonzalo, trusted adviser to King Alonso of Naples, are performed by females in male drag; and the beast-man Caliban, the only other human inhabitant of the island who is “not honour’d with a human shape” is played by a very fit and handsome man.

Tony Tom and Slate Holmgren in TEMPEST at La MaMa. Photo by Vanessa Schonwald.

So it’s curious that Prospero angrily describes Caliban as a “mooncalf” whose body grows uglier with age, but we are looking at the shirtless Slate Holmgren, an actor whose muscular physique and beauty are the essence of a Calvin Klein ad. The actors for the most part are comfortable with the Bard’s poetic lines, but Holmgren stands out, offering a sneering, raffish abandon with Prospero and a poignant subservience with drunken Stephano and Trinculo.

miriam-a-hyman-and-christopher-mclinden-in TEMPEST at La MaMa. Photo by Steven Schreiber.

The bawdy Tony Torn plays the swaggering, manipulative clown Stephano; he humorously dispenses alcohol as if urinating in Caliban’s mouth—a great sight gag. With her gift for slapstick and physical comedy, Liz Wisan disappears into the part of the inebriated, amoral Trinculo, ramping up the comic relief several notches with charisma and energy (“culo” is a vulgar, insulting slang term in Italian; therefore, a rough translation of “Trinculo” is triple ass).

Tony Tom in TEMPEST at La MaMa. Photo by Vanessa Schonwald.

Whether by direction or not, Reg E. Cathay is an uneven lead as Prospero. When he implores his daughter Miranda to pay close attention, the melancholy magician is often scanning the theater’s back wall; when he insists, “I pray thee, mark me,” it seems odd that he does not face her. There is no sympathy when he awards the gentle Ariel (14-year-old Joseph Harrington) his long-awaited freedom; and when he grants liberty to the recalcitrant Caliban, it’s strange that both pronouncements have the same emotionless tone: The tearful highlights of the play fall flat.

miriam-a-hyman-and-christopher-mclinden-in TEMPEST at La MaMa. Photo by Vanessa Schonwald.

Miriam A. Hyman’s Miranda has little chemistry with Christopher McLinden’s more self-assured Ferdinand. And while Ching Valdes-Aran does an adequate job in the gender-switched role of Gonzalo, her rendition of the iconic speech “In the commonwealth” lacks verve.

Shakespeare stopped writing dialogue for the crown-usurping villain Antonio in Act III. Earl Baker, Jr. has to do his best with one insignificant line in Act V, but he carries it off with poise and regal bearing; his rigid silence towards Prospero speaks volumes.

Reg E Cathey as Prospero in TEMPEST at La MaMa. Photo by Steven Schreiber.Riccardo Hernadez’ set has a red mezzanine along the back wall, with three large motorized fans, and the bare floor is mapped with white tape. A fog machine not only creates an eerie mood during Prospero’s spells, but paired with Christopher Akerlind’s lighting it emphasizes the theater’s verticality.

Costume designer Oana Botez snazzily dresses most of the shipwrecked Milanese and Neapolitan aristocrats and courtiers in a white palette of knickers, stockings, high heels,  swallow-tailed coats, and an Elizabethan ruff; Prospero’s swallow-tailed coat is yellow-gold. Stephano wears wide-striped trousers, and the slim, lithe figure of Trinculo is clad in a darker pallet of jacket, knickers, and stockings. Since Trinculo must hide under Caliban, Botez’ cleverly long tails on his black costume do the trick. But why is Ariel, a spirit of the air, dressed in muddy dark brown and garbed like an 1890s newsboy? Miranda is attired in a scrappy, hideous costume of gray- and black-striped long johns with crinoline attached to the back.

Elizabeth Swados (Runaways) created the dreamy incidental music. For most of Tempest, the musicians are unseen, but in Act IV, three slowly parade through the set, dressed in black. Playing a waterphone with a bow, an instrument that sounds like a theremin, John Kruth creates haunting, fluttering, propulsive rhythms.

Act IV’s magical pageant, featuring the goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno, is so minimalistic that it not only fails to enchant, it confirms that reading the play beforehand will benefit those unfamiliar with the work.

photos by Steven Schreiber and Vanessa Schonwald

Tempest
La MaMa Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E. 4 St.
Wed – Sat at 7:30; Sun at 4:00
scheduled to end on November 2, 2014
for tickets, call 212 475 7710 or visit www.lamama.org

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