Mandy Patinkin has a beautiful voice, as warm and golden as honey spooned from a jar — the perfect voice to sing us through “The Tempest,” the most musical of Shakespeare’s late plays. Toplined by Patinkin’s commanding Prospero, this Classic Stage Company production slips through some earthbound staging constraints to soar on the lyrical wings of the play’s poetry. One might carp about certain visuals or cringe from the slapstick comedy, but what a joy to hear every line enunciated — and understood — by a cast whose ears are attuned to the music of the spoken word.
Helmer (and CSC a.d.) Brian Kulick appears to have been of two minds about how to present this piece, which is only superficially about a wise and powerful necromancer with the magic powers to tame the elements and walk among the gods. On a deeper level, it is also a profoundly melancholy play about an old man’s wistful fantasy of using godlike powers to make his triumphant return to the world that cruelly rejected him.
So, while there are a great many things to admire about the staging concept — like the bed of white sand that symbolizes the beauty and purity of Prospero’s island kingdom — there are also too many clunky attempts to convey a sense of majesty. Like the gigantic stretched and painted canvas hanging awkwardly (and precariously) over the actors’ heads. Not to mention the toy boat that bobs to the surface in the fury of the storm that shipwrecks Prospero’s enemies on his island.
A far better directorial impulse was to simplify the action and clarify the dialogue exchanges, letting the language sing for itself. The unhurried scene pacing and crystal clear delivery of the performers also work toward that objective. Visually, so do Jian Jung’s uncluttered stage design and costumer Oana Botez-Ban’s restrained color palette: bleached-white garments for the islanders, crimson and gold for the royal court.
This minimalist approach really pays off in the application of Christian Frederickson’s original music and sound design. This cast is extraordinarily musical, its collective lyrical voice ranging well beyond Patinkin’s own famously eerie tenor. So, when Angel Desai’s beguiling Ariel literally breaks into song (“Full fathom five thy father lies …”) or when celestial deities materialize to bestow their musical blessings on the marriage of Ferdinand (Stark Sands) and Miranda (Elisabeth Waterston), we feel the play’s enchantments.
Shakespeare’s words do not necessarily have to be sung, though, to convey a sense of their music. A well-spoken delivery will do just as well, and the real achievement of Kulick’s production is that it is extremely well spoken, even by tyro thesps whose stage voices are still in training.
As Ferdinand, the young prince of Naples, Sands (“Journey’s End”) could easily coast on boyish energy and ardor, and at times he seems content to do so. But the language of the play gets to him, and, when he pricks up his ears to it (“This music crept by me upon the waters”), he seems properly transported.
The prince is even more transported, of course, by Prospero’s virginal daughter, Miranda — and, as played by Waterston, who wouldn’t be? Tall and a bit awkward in the coltish manner of post-adolescent girls, this young thesp has a bright, almost luminous quality that comes as much from intelligence as from youth.
For once, Miranda does seem to be her father’s daughter, because the beauty of Patinkin’s performance owes much to the sheer intelligence of the portrayal. He is, indeed, the great enchanter, but also a man of letters, a thinker, and a grave old philosopher.
If there is anything missing from this performance, it’s a sense of the gut fury Prospero still feels at his brother’s betrayal and the terrible struggle within himself to find the mercy to forgive his enemies. Although he beautifully renounces these unedifying emotions at the end of the play (“But this rough magic I here abjure”), he gives little indication that they have been gnawing away at his liver for 12 years.
The other missed connection in this production is between Prospero and Caliban. Not only is Nyambi Nyambi not the misshapen monster and imp of the perverse who tried to rape Miranda, he is gentle, rational and positively beautiful. With his sinuous body art and seductive manner of speaking, this rather noble Caliban hardly embodies the debased human urges that Prospero has to both acknowledge and exorcize in himself before he can reclaim his place in civilized society.
A pretty production this is, and an uncommonly musical one. But in important ways, it still leaves Prospero high and dry.