The Tempest at the Classic Stage Company (NYC) — a review

A business trip to New York City this week gave Emsworth a chance to see Mandy Patinkin in a production of The Tempest at the the Classic Stage Company, a small, no-frills theater in the East Village. 

It seems that my twenty-ish children already know Patinkin from his role as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, a movie that a better father would perhaps have watched with them.  (The picture to the right shows him in that movie with Andre the Giant and Wallace Shawn.) But personally, I hadn’t seen Patinkin at all, not in Evita or Sunday in the Park with George, not as a concert singer, and certainly not on television.  No matter.  For all his work in musical theater, Patinkin is a remarkably good Shakespearean actor, and it was a privilege to see him as Prospero. 

This show (directed by Brian Kulick) gets off to a bit of a slow start with a meandering and not especially terrifying shipwreck scene.  But it picks up as soon as Patinkin and Elisabeth Waterston (as Miranda) take the stage.  Their first scene together, of course, consists mostly of a long-overdue and somewhat long-winded explanation by Prospero of how he and Miranda came to be marooned on their island.  Patinkin kept our attention throughout this well-directed scene and throughout the play.

I couldn’t help, however unfairly, comparing this Tempest to the one we saw at the Stratford Festival in 2005 with the late William Hutt as Prospero (see picture below).  This week we saw a low-tech, low-budget production in a barely adequate performance space, while the Stratford show (in a first-class theater many times larger) went first class on all aspects of costuming and special effects.  And Patinkin’s supporting cast, taken as a whole, simply doesn’t compare to the repertory company at the Stratford.  Nor could any other Prospero measure up to William Hutt.

But Patinkin shares with Hutt a musical, modulated speaking voice, excellent timing (and the use of expressive pauses), and a talent for making Shakespeare’s language immediately intelligible.  Patinkin, who is 55, is of course a far more lively Prospero than Hutt was at the age of 85 — and he sings! 

Nyambi Nyambi is a particularly sympathetic Caliban with some of the play’s best lines; I enjoyed his performance very much. The energetic drunken scenes with Stefano (Steven Rattazzi), Trinculo (Tony Torn), and Caliban are nicely done. Angel Desai is a spunky (if surprisingly pudgy) Ariel with an unrequited longing for her master. I realized during this show that both Miranda and Ariel ask the same question: “Do you love me?” — Miranda of Ferdinand, and Ariel of Prospero.

I avoided the reviews before seeing this new Tempest, but now I’ve seen The New Yorker‘s snide comment that “Patinkin doesn’t seem to connect with the other actors or with the text.” 

Not connected with the text! He understood and reveled in each noble line! As to his connection “with the other actors,” The New Yorker seems to be knocking Patinkin for playing the character that Shakespeare created.  Antonio wouldn’t have been able to usurp Prospero’s dukedom in the first place if Prospero hadn’t been an introvert who detached himself from the citizens of Milan to devote himself to his books. 

Moreover, Prospero’s relationship to every character except Miranda, from the “shipwrecked” noblemen of Naples and Milan to the spirit Ariel and the Caliban, who are both his slaves — is one of control and manipulation. In several scenes, Prospero merely stands at the edge of the action, invisible to the other characters though making comments to the audience, watching to see how his schemes unfold. How surprising should it be that any Prospero should seem “unconnected” from other characters? Except Miranda: we felt from the start that Patinkin’s Prospero and his Miranda had a warm and affectionate relationship.

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