By Sarah Downs
In the Public Work’s production of The Tempest currently running at the Delacorte Theater, Shakespeare’s convoluted story of betrayal, revenge and love, has been condensed into a feel-good, allegory of revenge and forgiveness. This inclusive production makes visible the implicit, ever present chorus of souls that watch over us. Emphasizing the filaments that connect individual narrative to a collective past, this production makes it clear that one is never alone, even when banished to a lonely island.
The musical opens on an upbeat note, in a large scale singing, dancing opener that does everything an opening number should do. Prospero (Renée Elise Goldsberry) appears onstage, bringing it to mystical life as she calls upon the spirits to do her bidding. She sings of her brother’s betrayal and her plan for revenge. When the large, diverse ensemble appears, in colorful batik costumes, the setting is complete. Goldsberry, a superior singer and actress, effortlessly commands the stage, her natural presence gathering the audience to her.
As the story unfolds we learn of the brother who stole Prospero’s kingdom 12 years ago, banishing her and her daughter Miranda (a sweetly natural Naomi Pierre) to this deserted island. In an act of poetic justice, Prospero plots to rob the Duke of something he loves — his son Ferdinand (a charmingly believable Jordan Best). Prospero, both king and sorcerer, calls on her familiar, the spirit Ariel (an enigmatic Jo Lampert) to whip up a storm that shipwrecks the Duke and his entourage on her little island. Washing up on different shores, the Duke, his butler and his son Ferdinand wander in search of each other. Despondent over the presumed death of Ferdinand, the Duke is as lost emotionally as he is physically.
As comedy relief, the Duke’s butler Stephano (Joel Perez) and his clown Trinculo (Anthony J. Garcia) drink their way across the island, eventually joining forces with Caliban (Theo Stockman) Prospero’s bitter, hapless prisoner. The broad humor does grow a little wearying, but their antics do culminate in a delightful trio worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan. Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, Miranda and Ferdinand have fallen in love at first sight (of course. This is, after all, a magical island.)
Director Laurie Woolery wraps the stage in a veritable embrace of the ensemble spirit ancestors, weaving in and out of the action. This creates a buoyant rhythm throughout, with occasionally blips due to inevitable foot traffic. However, the enthusiasm of the group never falters. Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s subtle, unforced choreography highlights the diversity of this ensemble.
Benjamin Velez composes in an impressive range of styles. Other musical standouts include Ariel’s epic rock-and-roll number complete with kicking guitar solo and stunning rockstar attire. Ariel’s costume the most dazzling of Wilberth Gonzales’s whimsical, diverse creations. However, it is Prospero’s touching lullaby to the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand that kept playing in my head as I walked home. Goldsberry’s tenderness and authenticity make this the most affecting moment of the evening. She truly does cast a spell.
Alexis Distler’s multi level set, contrasts the organic world of the forest with the material world of architecture. The major set piece, the skeleton of a large forced-perspective, wooden barn is striking – its askew orientation creating the effect of being at once both rooted and in motion. David Weiner bathes the set in moody greens and purples reflective of the mystical world of spirit, warm sunshine on the beach, and happy pastels of celebration. Color fills the stage and beyond.
There is a special magic to watching a performance out in the open air. You are transported to another world the moment you sit down. The sun transforms the set as it descends to the horizon, man-made noises grow muted in the darkness and then the crickets begin to sing. When that performance takes place in Central Park, the jewel in the crown of New York City, the pleasure is all the sweeter.
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. Musical adaption by Benjamin Velez. Directed by Laurie Woolery, choreographed by Tiffany Rea-Fisher. Scenic design by Alexis Distler, lighting design by David Weiner, costumes by Wilberth Gonzalez.
With Tristan André, Brianna Cabrera, Sabrina Cedeño, Anthony Chatmon II, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jo Lampert Patrick O’Harem, Joel Perez, Edwin Rivera, and Theo Stockman, Joel Frost, Susan Lin, Naomi Pierre, Jordan Best, Anthony J. Garcia and an ensemble drawn from the Public Works community.