A Beautiful Tempest. Plus: Equivocation in Midtown

tempest A Beautiful Tempest. Plus: Equivocation in MidtownThe Bridge Project was founded last year to mount productions of classical theater with top-flight Anglo-American casts under the direction of Sam Mendes. It does that, certainly, and does it well, but perhaps the most notable element of a Bridge Project effort is the stunning production design. Shakespeare’s The Tempest—which opened last week at the BAM Harvey Theater, where it is now playing in repertory with this season’s other Bridge play, As You Like It—is no exception: It is beautiful.

The Tempest unfolds on the island to which Prospero, the rightful duke of Milan, has been banished with his daughter, Miranda, by his usurping brother, Antonio. At the center of Tom Piper’s set is a lonely swath of sand, closed in at the far side by a very shallow pool of water—the vast ocean that keeps Prospero captive on the island. Sometimes Paul Pyant’s moody lights hit that water just so, leaving a shimmering reflection on the horizonlike concrete wall at the back. The whole thing is breathtaking—as is the first entrance of Caliban, the play’s half-monster slave, arising through the stage floor, climbing out from the sand.

But while the design is restrained and lovely, the performance can seem just restrained. Stephen Dillane plays Prospero not as a commanding, entitled duke—the sort who, in seeking vengeance against his enemies 12 years after his exile, creates a violent storm, a tempest, as they sail past his island, to force them ashore—but rather as a thoughtful, reluctant leader and doting father. And Mr. Mendes’ directorial flourishes can sometimes be distracting: As Prospero circles the spot of sand early in the play—and circles, and circles, and circles—it becomes challenging to follow what he’s saying.

This Tempest is a thrill to look at, but it’s a bit less impressive to see.

Meanwhile, in midtown, the Manhattan Theatre Club is offering a glimpse at an imagined behind-the-scenes Will Shakespeare in Bill Cain’s fascinating and very funny Equivocation, which opened last night at MTC’s Off Broadway space in City Center.

Shakespeare—here called Shagspeare, perhaps to avoid four-century-old trademark infringement—has been summoned by Sir Robert Cecil, a top adviser to King James I, and ordered to write “a true history of the present,” an account of the just-foiled Gunpowder Plot to kill the king and his court. He’s reluctant to take the job—how can you be an artist and pursue the truth when you’re obligated to tell the king’s version of the story?—but also has no choice. As the play proceeds, Shag and his troupe, the King’s Men, wrestle with the commission, with truth and art and language and politics, before finally giving up on the Gunpowder Plot and instead debuting Macbeth—the Scottish play for the Scottish King.

Garry Hynes directs a very strong ensemble, with most of the actors playing multiple roles and often moving amusingly among them. John Pankow, the nebbishy sitcom star who even onstage tends to play sitcommy roles, is an unexpectedly excellent Shagspeare, intelligent and thoughtful and affecting.

The play is a history lesson, and a comedy, full of theater jokes and Shakespeare jokes, but more than anything, it is an intriguing and powerful meditation on language and the uses and misuses of it. Shagspeare visits a convicted Gunpowder conspirator, the Jesuit priest Henry Garnet, in the Tower of London, where Garnet speaks of the doctrine of equivocation he espouses—“how to speak the truth in difficult times.” It is, essentially, to be clever. “I want to tell the truth,” Shag tells Garnet. “I just don’t want to get caught at it.”

Equivocation is a warning about people in power who insist on their own truths—and it’s a passionate argument for telling the real truth, even in difficult times.
joxfeld@observer.com