Off-Broadway Review: THE TEMPEST (Public Works at the Delacorte Theater)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on August 31, 2023

in Theater-New York


At the curtain speech on the curtain-less stage of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, just before the start of the Public Works’ rousing new adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Program Director Laurie Woolery tells the audience that one reason for doing the show is, “…we’ve all been living in a tempest of sorts ourselves”. While our tumultuous present could arguably be likened to standing at the center of a swirling, howling ocean, Woolery offers a bigger reason for the production – that forgiveness and human connection offer solutions to the various conflicts in our lives. To that end, this delightful Public Theater musical adaptation, which foregrounds the forgiveness and connection aspects of Shakespeare’s play, entertainingly delivers this heart-warming conclusion.

Renée Elise Goldsberry (center) with the community ensemble
Susan Lin, Sabrina Cedeño, Joel Frost, Anthony Chatmon II, Jordan Best,
Joel Perez, Tristan André,and Willington Vuelto (center)

It features a huge cast of mostly non-professional performers gathered from the five boroughs. This multiplicity of New Yorkers shares the stage with some of the most talented pros working in the city this summer. While the storytelling falters a bit under the weight of some overpowering production numbers in the latter half, this new musical offers fun songs, stellar performances, Shakespeare’s words and enough warmth and exuberance to melt the heart of even the most crotchety old wizard. Even one who’s been nursing a grudge on a distant island for twelve years.

Renée Elise Goldsberry and Naomi Pierre

The most obvious shift in the text is making Prospero female and a mother. Prospero was at one time the Duke of Milan until her brother Antonio usurped her position. Put to sea with her infant daughter Miranda and her magic books, they wash ashore on a remote island. This betrayal by her brother and society hurt Prospero to her core, creating an inner wound that will seemingly never heal. Initially helped to survive and thrive by the island’s only inhabitant, a malformed creature named Caliban (his mother was a witch so give him a break), Prospero soon turns the tables and enslaves both Caliban and a captured island spirit named Ariel. Caliban’s now dead mother had previously imprisoned feisty Ariel in a tree.

Jason Asher, Nelson Chimilio, Eileen Chen, Ella Evans,
Jennifer Levine, Angel Divine Universe, and Jo Lampert

After twelve years on the island, Prospero gets wind that a ship carrying Antonio and other various and sundry courtiers is sailing nearby. Prospero magics up a huge tempest to crash the ship and bring her passengers to shore, separated and bewildered. Prospero’s plan is to finally exact her revenge by making them suffer the same traumatic changes and separations that she has. When the now twelve-year-old Miranda begs her mother to end the tempest, Prospero believes it’s finally time to tell Miranda of their rather posh background.

Sabrina Cedeño, Joel Perez, and Theo Stockman

Meanwhile, Prospero also sends Ariel to create all kinds of mischief and trouble for her shipwrecked enemies: There’s a plot to murder a king; Miranda falls in love with literally the first boy she sees; a butler tries to take over the island; Caliban plots to kill Prospero; a young prince is believed drowned; a nobleman wants to rule the island by not really ruling it; and a mysterious feast is ruined by a supernatural party-crasher. And somehow all of these machinations play into Prospero’s plan to finally exact her revenge. But is revenge all that it’s cracked up to be?

Theo Stockman (center)

As Prospero, the stunning Renée Elise Goldsberry. Possessing a gorgeous singing voice and an expert command of Shakespeare’s language, the beautiful Goldsberry delivers a powerful, vulnerable, engaging, conflicted, maternal Prospero. Which is fitting for this adaptation that hones down some of the sharper, baser edges of the play, positioning Prospero’s desire for revenge simply a reaction to gross mistreatment. Hers is an internal struggle to forgive the unforgivable — there’s no underlying selfish desire for power, manipulation of others, awareness of herself as victimizer as well as victim. She is a kinder, gentler Prospero and she works for this Tempest’s universe.

The company of Public Works’ musical adaptation of The Tempest

Also weaved into the performance is a mother’s struggle to let go of her young daughter Miranda, played by the lovely, if one note, Naomi Pierre. Laid in mostly through songs by Benjamin Velez, Goldsberry believably takes on this dichotomy as well — being the most powerful person on the island yet seemingly powerless to control her beloved daughter. So this is not a Tempest where Prospero is an avatar for Shakespeare saying farewell to his creative life or a study on the evils of colonization. This Tempest generously serves a very 2023 need — a demonstration of releasing even justified past hurts in order to reconcile and a move forward with others to a better future.

Naomi Pierre and Jordan Best (center)

Woolery’s confident direction impressively unites this multitude of bodies, puppets, props, effects, costumes and scenery into a cohesive whole. Benjamin Velez’s music and lyrics run the gamut from touching ballads to classic musical theater, including a show-stopping number about grabbing power through murder, hilariously performed by Tristan André (Sebastian) and Anthony Chatmon II (Antonio). Theo Stockman’s Caliban is a heartbreaker as he fully embodies the fear, power, vulnerability and hope of being the only soul truly entitled to rule the island. Jo Lampert’s Ariel is every bit the magical spirit (always followed by her charming group of Ariel-ettes). Wilberth Gonzales’s inspired costumes somehow keep the masses onstage individually defined yet color-coordinated as a group. Utilizing various forms of dance, Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s choreography keeps everyone joyously tapping, twirling and swaying.

Theo Stockman, Joel Perez, and Sabrina Cedeño with ensemble

Some may feel that with the original songs, script edits, gender switching and shifts in tone, this Tempest is not Shakespeare. I would counter and say it is. The production poses an important question to the community, makes us think and entertains. In 2023, one would hope there’s room for any variation on Shakespeare. After all, if there can be a West Side Story and a Kiss Me, Kate, why not a Broadway season where there’s a Temper Tempest? Ok, maybe not that title. Hey Ariel, don’t fly off just yet. We may need your help with one more task…

Jo Lampert

photos by Joan Marcus

The Tempest
Public Theater
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park
nightly (except Mondays) at 8pm
opened August 27, 2023
ends on September 3, 2023
for info and free ticket distribution, visit The Public

Oyu Oro Afro Cuban Experimental Dance Ensemble

THE TEMPEST will be the final Free Shakespeare in the Park production at The Delacorte Theater before it is temporarily closed for renovations to improve accessibility, audience comfort, back-of-house operations, and to re-clad the facade in reclaimed wood sourced from around New York City.

Vivian Jett Brown and Jo Lampert (foreground)

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