I’m so sorry most of you won’t have the opportunity to see this production which alas plays only through September 3. A last hurrah before The Delacorte Theater shuts for a two-year renovation, the show and its successful inclusion of almost 100 on-stage non-professionals from ages five through 80 (through the Public Works program), is simply wonderful. One leaves not only praising talent, but successful community involvement, the better attributes of humanity in short supply these days.
The Tale – in which Prospero is now a woman:
Renée Elise Goldsberry as Prospero
Having been betrayed by her brother’s usurping of power and her Dukedom, Prospero (Renée Elise Goldsberry) was put out to sea with daughter, Miranda (Naomi Pierre). Against all odds, she survives, making her home on an island, practicing magic, living for revenge. “I call upon the wind, I call upon the seas/I call upon the rage that lives inside of me…” she sings. Prospero enslaves Caliban (Theo Stockman) who has killed his mother, the witch Syntorax and ferally desires Miranda “to people the island with Calibans.” In exchange for having rescued Ariel (Jo Lampert) from the witch, she employs the spirit with the promise of freedom after exacting vengeance.
When a ship with royal enemies comes close to land, Prospero raises a storm to shipwreck its passengers: King Alonso (Joel Frost); his son, Ferdinand (Jordan Best); his brother, Sebastian (Tristan Andre); Alonso’s butler, Stephano (Joel Perez); his jester, Trinculo (Sabrina Cedeno); Prospero’s brother, Antonio (Anthony Chatmon II); and, nobleman Gonzalo (Susan Lin, also quite good with the bard). Alonso and Ferdinand are sure each other has perished.
Susan Lin, Sabrina Cedeño, Joel Frost, Anthony Chatmon II, Jordan Best, Joel Perez, Tristan André, and Willington Vuelto (center)
Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love. He’s the first man her daughter has ever glimpsed. “Do I refuse her or do I lose her?” she ambivalently sings. He proves himself honest and worthy. The lovers “vibe” to one another in a song that includes genial scat. (Honestly, it works.) With plans to take over back home, Antonio and Sebastian almost murder Alonso and Gonzalo. Stephano garners Caliban’s allegiance with alcohol, agreeing to kill Prospero and rule the island. “Huzzah, huzzah, a fool can be a king!”(Production number.) With the help of Ariel, Prospero runs her adversaries ragged like a cat toying with mouse-prey. The king regrets and she, at last, forgives. “I finally have the clarity/No more enmity/Give me dignity” she sings.
Naomi Pierre (Miranda) and Jordan Best (Ferdinand)
“The world is full of spirits/The world is full of fools/ The world is full of lovers/And those who break the rules.” The exuberant company hugs and dances.
Benjamin Velez (music and lyrics), with whom I’m unfamiliar, does a knock-out job here. Lyrics are literate and plot-enhancing. A range of musical styles lends itself to parentheses without seeming incompatible. Melodies from traditional Broadway to contemporary pop (with one pseudo-rap) are appealing and often infectious. Integration of original dialogue is seamless. The story arrives with clarity and intention. My single caveat is that we have no idea Trinculo is, in fact, the King’s jester which would add to character and clarity.
Director (and director of public works) Laurie Woolery’s two-fold charge, to herd and attractively utilize a cast full of novices while presenting story and mining character from professional thespians, must’ve been daunting. The “chorus,” some of whom sing, move in waves like migrating birds, sometimes taking up residence on the lip of the stage. Clever employment includes their carrying platters of food when Prospero decides to feed her prisoners while dialogue indicates only the platters are visible. And six accompanying spirits – all sizes, shapes and ages – who follow in Ariel’s wake.
Jason Asher, Nelson Chimilio, Eileen Chen, Ella Evans, Jennifer Levine, Angel Divine Universe, and Jo Lampert (Ariel)
Woolery utilizes the entire staging area with sense and motivation. Pacing is just right. Prospero (as in Julie Taymor’s film) becomes a woman without much adjustment of Shakespeare’s lines. Though referred to as “the Duke,” her relationship to daughter Miranda feels (and looks) lioness-organic. Renée Elise Goldsbury (Prospero), Jo Lampert (Ariel), and Theo Stockman (Caliban), are particularly accomplished with Shakespeare’s language, though all the primary cast acquits itself well. Consistency is greater than many straight pieces by the bard. Ariel’s movement – not a phrase is delivered without graceful, quirky, physical demonstration as if hitchhiking on the wind – adds enormously to the character as does Caliban’s heavy, begrudging mobility to his. The young lovers appear palpably innocent and besotted. Stephano’s drunk is engagingly farcical.
Renée Elise Goldsberry as Prospero
Renée Elise Goldsberry acts as the powerful axis for this piece. Her Prospero arrives proud and rife with fury. One hardly expects subtlety from a musical role, but we see it here in moments of wrenching decision and maternal love. The actress has a terrific singing voice and outstanding presence. Rack up another in a series of increasingly impressive appearances.
As Ariel, Jo Lampert is as much dancer as actor. Speech is exemplary, movement immensely evocative. Change in delivery between avenging spirit and bound sprite are distinctive. Flickers of mischief and anticipation of freedom add captivation.
Theo Stockman’s Caliban speaks as if his teeth were lose which makes the character seem as if he spits dialogue (not impeding lucidity) out of frustration and anger. As the son of a witch-hag and the only real native of the island, a wide roster of emotions roils under his clodding presence. Stockman adds color and mercurial variation.
Trinculo (Sabrina Cedeno), Stephano (Joel Perez), Theo Stockman (Caliban)
Joel Perez’s Stephano (Alonso’s butler – there’s no dialogue to tell us this) is a rowdy, drunken, gullible braggart. Perez’s inebriation is woozy without overplaying. Physical comedy emphasizes greedy aspirations. He’s fun.
Choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher meets the challenge of giving non professionals with a wide age range evocative, simultaneous movement all can execute. It looks grand. Of actual dancing, the unexpected highlight is a vaudeville turn by Antonio and Sebastian as they gleefully plan to murder the King of Naples.
Alexis Distler’s scenic design, a version of Beowulf Boritt’s angled, sinking house from this season’s earlier Hamlet, offers the shell of a dilapidated structure conceivably cobbled together by island inhabitants. Peripheral trees and a trapdoor with rising platform are employed to best advantage.
Prospero’s not-quite-rags (with a tad of shimmer) contrast ship inhabitants’ leather and studs. Ariel’s transformation from ephemeral, leafy creature to ominous spirit with enormous dark wings and Caliban’s mossy dirt and body binding (metaphor) are particularly original. (Costumes by Wilberth Gonzalez.)
Theo Stockman as Caliban
PUBLIC WORKS, a major artistic program of the Public Theater, aims to restore and build community by connecting people through the creation of extraordinary works of art… invites community members to take classes, participate in programming, attend performances, and join in the creation of ambitious works of participatory theater. All programs are year round. The Public Works model continues to be adopted by theaters across the country, and around the world.
One can only hope that this buoyant piece is produced by Public Works across the country. With fewer background players, it could also be mounted in small theaters introducing Shakespeare to those who mightn’t otherwise be tempted. It’s that good.
Photos by Joan Marcus