The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park recently ended its season with a new, experimental musical version of The Tempest. Directed by Laurie Woolery, the production includes gender-bending casting and a diverse chorus of amateur performers from across all five boroughs of New York City. With only a handful of performances, the play is shrunk down to 90 minutes with no intermission.
A chorus of performers in vivid blues and greens undulate across the stage of the Delacorte. There are droves of them, and they are amateurs, from young children to people in their eighties. They are a warm and vivacious cross-section of humanity giving life to the play, vivid and teeming as a coral reef. I was deeply moved watching the chorus traverse the play, seeing their sweet unconstrained expressions, their individuality and their collaborative helpfulness as they aided each other in navigating the choreography. They were clearly having the time of their lives, and their enthusiasm was infectious.
The production does a superb job of presenting a truly diverse chorus, with amateur performers, each with a different look and skill, tearing up the stage. It was thrilling to watch them watch each other, help each other, and dive headlong into the singing and dancing with the total absorption we achieve dancing late at night, alone in the kitchen. Community theater is a beautiful thing, and we don’t have anywhere near enough of it in uber-professionalized New York City.
The chorus (“Spirits” in the original play, “Spirit Ancestors” in the Public Theatre’s musical production) dash on and off stage, more like the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream than Ariel’s pedantic spirits in the original text. They swarm like phosphorescent fish around Miranda and Ferdinand, whose adolescent love story the play adaptors have made the heart of the production.
Sixteen-year-old Naomi Pierre, in the role of Miranda, steals the show from the significantly more experienced professionals in many of the other principal roles. Her simple, precise and elegant performance is collaborative and engaging. The casting of Pierre was a stroke of brilliance, and she approached the role with a curiosity and generosity that was lacking in some of the professional actors. Pierre reported to The New York Times that with her school responsibilities, she still has not had time to actually read The Tempest, yet she so immersed herself in the character that in performance, she became the naïve, witty and wise Miranda personified.
Dancing and physicality were brought forward in the production. In the manner of contemporary Broadway musicals, the genre varied from scene to scene. During the masque scene, Oyu Oro, an Afro-Cuban experimental dance ensemble, took the stage with bomba drummers and dancers in traditional folk costumes. While the music and dancing were lovely, this addition, like so many other aspects of the production, came out of nowhere. Various abstract themes (love, forgiveness, togetherness) were hammered home in extremely on-the-nose song lyrics, (“I’ll finally be free of the tempest in me,” sings Prospero), but despite all the attempts at populism, the play was a little confusing. I imagine it would be more so for those unfamiliar with the original text—it was plaplexing in a contemporary manner, in the way of mainstream blockbusters where one must be immersed in, say, decades of Marvel superhero lore to follow the plot twists. The production wasn’t all that interested in our ability to understand in the most basic way what was happening on stage.
Prospero, performed by Renée Elise Goldsberry of Hamilton fame, with her booming mezzo-soprano, perhaps best embodies this contextless production. Goldsberry, radiant with health, flies about the stage singing and dancing, wins a great victory over her enemies and has her dukedom returned to her. She does not pretend to be the elderly Prospero, and yet delivers the lines: “Bear with my weakness. My old brain is troubled. Be not disturbed with my infirmity.” Prospero, while elderly, sometimes puts on an infirmity to trick those who had usurped his position; however, this very Disney production of The Tempest lacks that kind of subtlety, as does Goldsberry’s delivery. She also states, in a final scene, after all ruses are given up, “retire me to my Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave.” (A line so odd and unbelievable in this production that it evoked titters from the audience.) Like the random bits of constructed scenery that went unused and unremarked upon on stage, the randomness of the textual and artistic choices made me wonder if the show adaptors cared if the audience understood what was happening and why. The focus instead was on the blending of the community ensemble with the professional actors, a showcase for participation as art in and of itself.
This blending of professionals and amateurs was not entirely successful, but not for the reasons you might expect. The amateurs presented more subtlety and greater kindness to the audience than many of the professional actors. The non-professionals had tremendous heart and lacked the flippancy of the professionals, whose skill and polish could come off as knife-edged and disciplining in comparison. The comic nature of the production emphasized this hardness of performance. The scene between Caliban (Theo Stockman), Stephano (Joel Perez), and Trinculo (Anthony J. Garcia, understudy filling in for Sabrina Cadeño) is meant as comic relief in the original play, a moment of lightness. However, in this production, each actor asks that we take their hijinks with extreme seriousness. They make demands instead of invitations and, for myself, the scene inspired as much anxiety as it did laughter.
The Public Theatre describes the show as follows: “As Prospero grows closer to getting the justice she desires, she witnesses her daughter fall in love, listens to the wisdom of spirit ancestors and discovers that sometimes forgiveness is the only way to break cycles and right the course for the next generation.” Every generation, every era, is going to remake Shakespeare for its own purposes. This gender-blind and colorblind musical production, with its Pixar-like sound, is very much of our own time—a socially just, values-first spectacle that is chock full of lore and world-building but limited to the resources of a specific franchise. Granted, Shakespeare has a lot more artistic bandwidth than Guardians of the Galaxy, but even Shakespeare will have a narrowness of scope if only pursued for abstracted themes and hokey punchlines.