Sam Mendes’s production of “The Tempest” is a gripping combination of excellent performances and stunning special effects that puts the perfect punctuation mark on Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
“The Tempest” was the Bard’s last play, and its elements of romance, comedy, and fantasy have inspired much debate among critics over the years — many see the twisted logic of colonialism on display throughout. Of course, for good measure, Shakespeare throws in a whirlwind romance, some slapstick humor with three drunkards, and the intrigue of sibling betrayal.
Of all these different themes, Mendes mines the colonial angle the least — the sole disappointment in an otherwise mesmerizing production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater.
Mendes chose to not use curtains for his production, giving the stage an openness that he uses to great effect. In the first scene, Prospero — played by Stephen Dillane dressed like a combination between Gandalf from “Lord of the Rings” and Don Quixote — stands up from the side of the stage, slowly dons his wizard-robe and begins the dark rite that summons the tempest of the play’s title. Suddenly, the audience is swept up in one of Shakespeare’s most mystical tales.
Prospero — the former duke of Milan who’s been exiled to a tropical island — causes a shipwreck that is the first step towards his revenge. Conveniently for him, the passengers on the ship include his nemeses (one happens to be his brother), as well as his future son-in-law.
Unlike Mendes’s previous production, “As You Like It,” which was as dull visually as the performances, the stage for “The Tempest” equals Dillane’s performance in its magnitude.
Front and center is a circle of sand, where most of the action takes place. Behind it is a shallow pool of water stretching across the back of the stage, creating quite a contrast. There, characters “off stage” sit in silence — a clever trick that adds to the surreal, fantastic element of the play.
But as well calculated as the layout is, Mendes cannot avoid indulgences — none more distracting than a home video montage from the 1970s or 1980s of a happy young Aryan family playing together. The video, though brief, comes across as a contemporary intrusion forced upon the audience by a director keen to put his own stamp on the classic play. It is completely unnecessary.
Still, Mendes generally uses the special effects powerfully. None takes advantage of the stage like Caliban, the wretched beast of the island, whose first appearance drew gasps from the audience. Played by Ron Cephas Jones, Caliban in this production is not so much a repulsive creature as one to be pitied.
To scholars, Caliban has served as a metaphor for Latin America pre-conquest — an “uncivilized” world uncorrupted by modernity.
Jones delivers several speeches emphasizing this dichotomy, matching Dillane in his eloquence. At one point, Caliban reflects upon his savage surroundings, “The clouds methought would open, and show riches/Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked/I cried to dream again.”
While “As You Like It,” has certainly not met critical success, performing them simultaneously is quite a Herculean task — even for a cast as accomplished as this one participating in BAM’s “The Bridge Project.” But if “As You Like It” was tragically bad, consider “The Tempest” redemption.
“The Tempest” at the BAM Harvey Theater [651 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene, (718) 636-4100]. Now through March 13.
©2010 Community Newspaper Group
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