Just as Prospero bids farewell to his powers at the end of The Tempest, so this production of Shakespeare’s play (showing to Sunday) brings the curtain down, temporarily, on Shakespeare in the Park. The Delacorte Theater is being renovated, and will resume productions again in 2025 (some early pleas: keep the frosé, but do something about New York’s most ass-numbing seats).
To say farewell, appositely this is a Public Works production—with music and lyrics by Benjamin Velez, choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher, and directed by Public Works chief Laurie Woolery—which in heartfelt intent is all that theater should be in a city. The performers combine professionals and community members. The tickets are free for all. As night falls, the enchantment of the text melds with the physical surroundings. The stage is filled with a cross-section of the city in dance and song.
The preservation of this theater-going experience is vital, but do not attend this au revoir expecting a conventional Tempest. This is rather Tempest-lite; a bright and peppy 90-minutes with some Shakespearean text and depth left intact, but not much—and instead almost an anti-inclination to dig for it, or the deeper, darker currents of the text.
Here, with an excellent and striding Renée Elise Goldsberry playing her, we have a kinder, gentler Prospero (made female). A tame and whimsical Ariel (Jo Lampert) doesn’t seem to mind too much that her wizardly master keeps delaying and delaying her promised freedom. Even Caliban (Theo Stockman) isn’t too scary. A campy musical number—the best number of the show, showcasing the dazzling talents of Tristan André (as Sebastian) and Anthony Chatmon II (as Antonio)—unpacks whether Sebastian will slay his older brother Alonso, the king of Naples (Joel Frost), just as Antonio has betrayed his sibling Prospero.
Large parts of the text are excised to make way for enthusiastic musical numbers about how Miranda and Ferdinand (Naomi Pierre and Jordan Best, a charming pair of actors with palpable chemistry) are vibing each other. It’s enjoyable and sweet, but just as the text suffers in comparison to music, a boppy Tempest means the characters’ thornier interior dilemmas are muted. Goldsberry is certainly a commanding Prospero, especially as she watches her daughter fall for the son of her enemy. But what is missing is Prospero’s long attachment to power and subjugation.
In fact, the whole play passes off the yearning for dominance as a comedy to be vamped up (for the fools), or a milder passion that Prospero gives up easily in service of forgiveness and a future for her daughter off the island. You never doubt this Prospero will free Ariel and the sprite doesn’t appear to doubt it, either. They both are quite loveable.
Wilberth Gonzalez’s costumes are superb (all shades and styles of weathered leather for the castaways, tight black shiny leather for the usurpers, and a stunning set of silver wings for Ariel in a scene where she befuddles Prospero’s foes). The night we saw it, Alexis Distler’s set, including the beaten-up house last seen in Hamlet earlier this summer, was complimented by late August’s blue supermoon.
The singing is lovely, the tunes are fine, but—and this will surprise no-one, and it is baffling the production leans so away from it—the production truly thrums when it serves up Shakespeare’s text as written. Its most famous words stay intact: “We are such stuff…,” “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine…” and then Prospero’s final resolution that “The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance.”
These lines are so thoughtfully delivered, you wonder why the production seems so resistant to its shimmering source material. We were lucky on Wednesday night. A twilight wind shuddered through the theater and rustled the full green trees in perfect unison with The Tempest’s quietest, most profound moments. The magic of that place in the park, and the play and these performers, was in full concordance. But the best of Shakespeare shouldn’t feel so momentary and elided—a ghost at its own feast.