What a scene, these summer nights at the open-air Delacorte Theater, where all 2,000 seats fill up early, and helicopters swoop and buzz overhead like mutant moths drawn to the spotlights in unending clatter. Not since Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Goldblum graced this stage in “Twelfth Night” six years ago has free Shakespeare in Central Park provoked such interest , and the reason is Patrick Stewart, who has traded Capt. Jean-Luc Picard’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation” garb for Prospero’s robes in New York Shakespeare Festival producer George C. Wolfe’s staging of “The Tempest.”
While Stewart’s elegant solo rendering of “A Christmas Carol” has become a recent Christmastime tradition on Broadway, “The Tempest” represents the opportunity to see one of our most astonishing directors of contemporary material — notably, “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Angels in America”– mounting his first Shakespeare production, with the Royal Shakespeare Company veteran-turned-People-magazine sex icon as the draw.
It’s quite a display, with actors on stilts, giant puppets, an exotic, percussive onstage band and the backdrop of Belvedere Lake, as enchanting on a moonlit evening as anything in Shakespeare’s valedictory. Stewart has a commanding bearing and a great stentorian baritone that make him a thrill to hear; you won’t miss a word of Prospero’s speeches. The tip-off about what he and his director are up to comes early, when Prospero is describing to his 14 -year-old daughter, Miranda (Carrie Preston), the treachery and betrayal that brought them to this bewitched Mediterranean island 12 years earlier.
Having evoked memories of her early, luxe life in Italy, this Prospero comes to the story of how his brother successfully conspired to usurp his throne as Duke of Milan. Stewart isolates the phrase “my brother” and dispenses it in an angry roar, anger being the production’s motivating force. Prospero’s angry, Caliban (Teagle F. Bougere) is angry, even the sprite Ariel (Aunjanue Ellis) is angry; when she tells the tale of her imprisonment by the witch Sycorax, actors with long poles surround her and close in.
To be sure, there’s enough anger to go around, and no one is more likely to unearth it all than Wolfe. Moreover, it’s a completely justified reading. The only problem is that it’s so disengaging: A Prospero who barks at Miranda (particularly this coltish Miranda, who wants only to please) is a Prospero we have some difficulty cottoning to, sex god or no sex god. His jealousy at losing Miranda to the young prince Ferdinand (Kamar de los Reyes, a stranger to Shakespearean verse) is there, all right. But where’s the loving resignation of a father who, after all, has set the whole process in motion?
Wolfe has a dazzling theatrical sensibility, yet the reading here is ultimately unmoving. For all the sizzle, the play has been all but drained of romance. It’s set on a sandy, wide-open circle, with Prospero’s meager cell jutting out on a promontory over the lake; actors occasionally carry on bits of foliage to establish a location. The style owes much to Julie Taymor and Elizabeth Swados, who were conjuring such efforts for the Shakespeare Festival 15 years ago, though with more precision and imagination. Here, the cross-cultural elements seem patched on: a lithe Ariel who moves like a Hindu goddess; a crowd-pleasing Trinculo (the great clown Bill Irwin) and Stephano (John Pankow) straight out of commedia dell’arte.
More sober — you can tell by the no-nonsense black-and-white costumes Toni-Leslie James has given them — are the King of Naples (Larry Bryggman, who’s been singlehandledly lending class to Festival productions for a quarter of a century), his conniving brother Sebastian (Liev Schreiber) and Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio (Nestor Serrano).
It’s all quite ear-filling and eye-pleasing, a midsummer night’s spectacle. But “The Tempest” is much more than spectacle. When Prospero renounces his magic , yields his daughter and prepares for his homecoming, we need to hear the sympathetic notes of reconciliation — and loss — along with the bold anthem of a man who has undone a terrible wrong. It’s that quieter resonance one longs for here.