Exit Lines: Bard Games

Written by Exit Lines, Theatre

Playing with Shakespeare, in the Park and on Broadway.

exit-lines-logoIt’s that time of the year again here in New York–Shakespeare in the Park time, so get on line early in Central Park, pack a picnic lunch after you’ve obtained your tickets (you can get good sandwiches at the Delacorte before the show), and prepare to enjoy The Tempest, the first free offering of the summer. Like most Delacorte productions, it’s a mixed bag, but at these prices, who’s to complain? And I saw it on a beautiful, star-kissed night, so I admit my critical defenses were lowered.

My only other stage Tempest was five years ago, with Stephen Dillane playing Prospero in a dry run for his role as Stannis on Game of Thrones, betwixt by magic and daughter issues. Here we have Delacorte veteran Sam Waterston in the part, and it’s not an ideal fit. He’s a sturdy actor, a conscientious performer, but not a commanding or intimidating one, as the betrayed prince, marooned on his enchanted island, might be. His Prospero is harmlessly eccentric, and more comfortable reconciling with his former confederates than in stirring up trouble once a storm puts them under his spell. Waterston is hosting this Tempest, not incarnating it.

Then again, that’s not so bad. The Tempest breaks down into several parts, and chances are you’ll enjoy one or two of them. There’s Prospero’s relationship with his questioning daughter Miranda, played by a lovely, wide-eyed Julliard student, Francesca Carpanini. There’s the moral reckoning of the stranded nobles, including Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio (Cotter Smith, who has the forthright presence Waterston lacks in the lead). There are the strange creatures of the barren island, Caliban (an ape-like and appealing Louis Cancelmi) and the air sprite Ariel (Chris Perfetti, in costuming apparently sourced from a 70s leather bar downtown). There’s the comedy interludes, which, frankly, can be deadly, even in a stronger production. Not so here: director Michael Greif has loosed one of my favorite stage actors, Danny Mastrogiorgio, and the accomplished Jesse Tyler Ferguson (who summers here once another Emmy-nominated season on Modern Family has wrapped), on the parts of Stephano and Trinculo, to joyful, spirit-raising effect. The scene where they encounter Caliban, to mutual incomprehension, is like something out of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

And there is stage magic: Handsome lighting (David Lander), ferocious audio (credited to Acme Sound Partners, Jason Crystal, and Matt Tierney), performers who contort themselves and scuttle across the stage, giant, green-colored bat wings for Ariel. Waterston may be something of a non-starter as a magician, but under New York skies, before an actual castle as birds and helicopters fly overhead, the revels never end until 10:45pm.

Speaking of Shakespeare, I never wrote much about Something Rotten!, a musical with a title to tempt fate with theatre critics. Crisis averted: the show was decently reviewed, and won a second Tony for co-star Christian Borle, who plays the Bard as a swaggering narcissist, telling everyone how witty and amusing he is. It works for the actor, who is indeed witty and amusing in the show. (“Did you see what I just did there?” is his refrain, as he drops another bon mot on his admirers). The show itself, however, is the kind that keeps reminding you how witty and clever it is, huffing and puffing and huffing and puffing some more to blow itself up into the next Book of Mormon or Drowsy Chaperone or Spamalot, three other hits director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw was involved in.

Well, the material just isn’t in their league, and now I remember why I kept mum. There’s nothing more exhausting than watching first-rate performers (including Borle’s Smash co-star, Brian D’Arcy James) push second-rate stuff uphill for two acts, hoping for a genuine laugh amidst the tedium. There’s one: James’ playwright, forever in the Bard’s shadow, hires a soothsayer to find out what he’s up to, as he hits upon the idea to set a play to music, inventing a revolutionary new kind of theatrical experience. The deed is done, but the bumbling mystic only retrieves the title of Shakespeare’s aborning magnum opus, and scrambles it: Omelette. Funny–then the second act laboriously stages the thing, and the yolk’s on us as Something Rotten! gets runny, then congeals. Did you see what I just did there? Oy.