September 24, 2008

The Gale Force Behind "The Tempest"

There is a lovely moment in the second act of the Classic Stage Company’s new production of The Tempest when the cast members join together in song. Soaring above the other voices is a distinctive tenor, almost ethereal, irresistibly seductive. Even if his name weren’t in the program or his face on the poster for the show, anyone who knows anything about theater over the last 30 years would recognize it instantly as belonging to Mandy Patinkin, the original Che in Evita and the original George in Sunday in the Park with George. Truly one of a kind, Patinkin has returned to the New York stage for the first time in eight years in the role of the sorcerer Prospero and brought with him a reminder of the unique qualities that define real star power (click here to read a revealing interview with him).

As you may remember from your college lit days, The Tempest, which is believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote alone, tells the story of Prospero, the magic-loving Duke of Milan who is cheated out of his kingdom by his brother and marooned on a mystical island with his daughter Miranda. Among the isle’s inhabitants are Ariel, a sprite who becomes his right-hand factotum, and Caliban, an ungainly native whom he enslaves. As the play opens, a storm shipwrecks the duplicitous brother, his ally the king of Naples and their courtiers on the island, setting the stage for Prospero to take his revenge.

Like so much of the Bard’s work, The Tempest provides opportunities for lots of different actors to show-off. Elisabeth Waterston, the willowy daughter of Sam Waterston, best known for his 18 seasons on TV’s “Law & Order” but also an accomplished Shakespearean actor, is completely charming as Miranda. Her declaration-of-love scene with Ferdinand, the young prince of Naples, winningly played by Stark Sands, is another one of the production’s highlights.

Meanwhile, Angel Desai makes Ariel a character of appealing substance. And Tony Torn and Steven Rattazzi add much—perhaps too much—comic relief in the roles of the clownish servants Trinculo and Stefano. Only Nyambi Nyambi,
far too handsome to play the grotesque Caliban, seems miscast despite his painted body and attempts to lumber awkwardly and literally froth at the mouth.

In the end, though, The Tempest is Prospero’s show and each production’s success rests heavily on the actor playing him. I’m not a big Patinkin fan (due in part, I suspect, to all the reports about his bad backstage behavior during the short run of Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party back in 2000)
but I was enchanted by that musical scene in the second act of The Tempest and by his performance in the rest of the play as well. Patinkin brings the full force of his idiosyncratic self to the role. His Prospero is more robustly philosophical than whimsically vulnerable, speaks with a cadence more Yiddish than Shakespearean. And it all works.

Watching Patinkin made me think about how rare it is to see such a singular performance these days. New York is brimming over with good actors but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean actors who are literally like no one else—the way Ethel Merman, Mary Martin and Robert Morse were back in the Golden Age of Broadway and the way Patti LuPone, Kristin Chenoweth and Patinkin are now.

But the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction, towards stars with less wattage. Over the past couple of years, producers here and in London have turned to "American Idol"-style contests to cast their shows. I can’t imagine Patinkin (or, for that matter, LuPone or even Chenoweth) making it past the first round—too intense, not endearing enough, so unpredictable. Which, of course, is what makes him so mesmerizing onstage. And which is why you should see his Prospero. Luckily, the run has been extended through Oct. 19.

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