6/21/09

“No reservations, no admission charge, just a beautiful park and a night under the stars.” Not a bad deal, you have to agree. The above is Saul Elkin’s annual welcome to another outdoor tandem of plays by William Shakespeare in Buffalo’s Delaware Park, the first being the Bard of Avon’s last, perhaps shortest and most retrospective work, The Tempest, now 400 years old and as popular as it is puzzling.

Elkin is the paterfamilias of Shakespeare-in-Delaware-Park, now in its 34th season, and he often does double-duty, organizing the productions yet occasionally taking on a stage role and rightfully a major one such as The Tempest’s Prospero, the usurped, mostly benevolent Duke of Milan, island exiled for many years and a man with magical powers to control people and events to his liking.

This is the fourth Tempest” for the summer troupe, a tale deemed allegorical by some, a romance or tragi-comedy by others. There are theories about the evils of colonization and another premise holds that the play was Shakespeare’s farewell to theater and stagecraft. Poet, critic and novelist Mark van Doren probably said it best about the play.

“The Tempest,” he said, “is whatever we take it to be.”

The story, multilayered, can be perplexing: Prospero and his daughter, virginal Miranda, have been banished from Milan but in this production, somehow end up in the Caribbean, fitting perhaps given a “New World” feel about the tale.

Years pass. Prospero longs for home, and it is here that The Tempest begins its long road to reconciliation between brothers and friends, disloyalties and worse forgiven, grudges healed. Before all of this occurs, Prospero lets several dangerous plots unfold — no real harm is done, but only Prospero knows outcomes.

A half-man, half-beast, Caliban, has been enslaved and exploited by Prospero and wants his freedom; a spirit, Ariel, a symbol of everything positive about humanity, also wants independence. Caliban festers. Ariel remains true but grows impatient. Prospero is edgy and angry, even while knowing how it will all turn out. He barks at Caliban; he spits at Ariel, “You malignant thing.”

Prospero arranges a perfect storm, a tempest, a shipwreck — Shakespeare’s familiar symbolism of the sea — with survivors, all with different perspectives on where they are and what’s what. Everything gets settled, including Miranda’s future and Prospero’s return to civilization.

“Our revels are now ended,” Prospero says in a famous few lines of Shakespeare. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

The Tempest has been tinkered with here, with mixed results. Director Derek Campbell has devised three Ariels, blue, wispy creatures who dart and flit and melt into the night. Great idea; Kristen Tripp Kelly,

Jay Pichardo and Nathan Winkelstein are wonderful sprites.

Original music by Tom Makar — including Bob Marley reggae rhythms — inserts fun even if sots Trinculo and Stephano, with their Mississippi redneck accents, muddy the Caribbean waters, complicating understanding for first-time Shakespearian audiences seeking relevance. It’s an odd take.

Director Campbell sees global ramifications in the political shenanigans here, and so he’s cast Tafik T. Muhammad — Obama? — as Ferdinand, Miranda’s love interest. It’s a reach.

Generally, the cast is fine, a sprinkling of summer Shakespearians — Jim Mohr, Neil Garvey, Gerry Maher, Tom Loughlin — and some excellent newcomers, Muhammad, Elexa Kopty and Aaron Pitre, lithe and catlike as Caliban—and, of course, Saul Elkin, overseeing, all-wise, as Prospero, his “revels” speech a bit rushed but still great to hear as it wafts over park and lake.

There’s a set both nautical and tropical by Ron Schwartz; it complements nicely.