“The Tempest” and Central Park were made for each other, so it must have taken a Herculean effort on the part of director Michael Greif to drain Shakespeare’s most mysterious play of all its magic in his current outing for Shakespeare in the Park. Despite some thunderous sound-and-light effects, this plodding production lacks the power of enchantment. And little wonder, since Sam Waterston’s terribly diminished Prospero has been denied all the accouterments of his high office. His magic wand is a skinny stick, his vast library of ancient tomes has been reduced to one old book, and his magician’s cloak looks like a torn bedsheet.
Despite his worthy aspiration to tackle the formidable role of Shakespeare’s great necromancer, Waterston is doomed to play nice guys. He’s thoroughly likable at the end of the play, as Prospero the benevolent healer who frees his slaves, matches up the young lovers and repairs the broken lives of the lost sailors. But he’s less than believable as Prospero the raging master of the dark arts, who engineers the frightful storm at sea — the coup de theatre of designers Riccardo Hernandez (sets), David Lander (lighting), Acme Sound Partners and Jason Crystal (sound), and Matt Tierney (soundscapes) — that breaks up a mighty ship at sea and tosses the survivors onto the magician’s enchanted isle.
Aside from that opening spectacle, there’s little to tickle our fancy in this downbeat production.
A black metal catwalk and exposed lighting towers lend a cold, hard edge to the fecund island where Prospero fled to raise his daughter Miranda (Francesca Carpanini, fair of face, shrill of voice) after being rousted from his kingdom by his treacherous brother, Antonio (Cotter Smith). On this barren stage, there’s no sign of the great library that Prospero built to ease his exile and no sense of the mystical aura that enfolds the island.
Not even Ariel (Chris Perfetti), the true source of magic, is allowed to toss some fairy dust around. By some ill-conceived notion, this other-worldly spirit (inexplicably trussed up in leather bindings by costumer Emily Rebholz) is rendered as a grim and brooding soul who might be Caliban’s baby brother. The monstrous Caliban himself (“this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” as Prospero finally acknowledges) is appropriately fierce and frightening in Louis Cancelmi’s forceful perf. His brutish scenes with those creepy clowns Trinculo and Stephano (played, respectively, by Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Danny Mastrogiorgio, both excellent) are as dark as the comedy gets in this play.
But everything about this earthbound production, from the stiff military garb of the royal visitors to the flat cyclorama of a raging sea, is presented in such literal terms that even the lyricism of the language is dashed upon the rocks and left to drown.